News

Sampling of sports columns of note from the past week

Various Writers
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The last time I saw him, Buck O'Neil was smiling and talking. It was a gleaming smile as white as his silky hair. And of course he was talking baseball, telling all sorts of wonderful baseball stories with a voice that would sway with the lyrical rhythms of a Southern preacher.

BRYAN BURWELL, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on BUCK O'NEIL

ST. LOUIS -- The last time I saw him, Buck O'Neil was smiling and talking.

It was a gleaming smile as white as his silky hair. And of course he was talking baseball, telling all sorts of wonderful baseball stories with a voice that would sway with the lyrical rhythms of a Southern preacher.

The last time I saw ol' Buck, we strolled through the halls of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and his large, expressive hands would clap like thunder and his wonderful voice would cackle, dance and hum. If this was indeed the voice of a preacher, then inside the walls of the Kansas City baseball landmark -- or inside the confines of any ballpark -- ol' Buck was in his church, and baseball was his religion.

Late Friday night, John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil died at age 94 in a Kansas City hospital, and baseball lost its most precious living treasure.

When I heard that Buck had died, the first thing I did was cry. But then I quickly remembered the last time I was with him ("Satchel Paige, the best there ever was!! Mmmm hmmm. Did you hear what I said? Best there ever was! Mmmm hmmmm."), and the last time I saw him on TV, standing behind that podium in Cooperstown singing another sweet baseball song.

I wiped away the tears, just as he would have wanted me to. I'm glad that my lasting memory of him would involve baseball and a smile, because that was ol' Buck.

He never saw the bitterness in his life, only the blessedness. He was the grandson of a former slave and grew up in segregated rural Florida. He became a star in the Negro Leagues as a player, coach and manager, moved on to the newly integrated major leagues as a pioneering coach and scout, and finally through the past half-century of his life, he became baseball's ultimate homespun poet laureate.

He died knowing that he had missed out on the Hall of Fame by two or three votes, which probably hurt him deeply. But he never complained. When the 17 Negro League and pre-Negro League inductees were ushered into the Hall of Fame a few months ago, Buck was there to welcome them in. He had preached the gospel of the Negro Leagues for so long, and now this was the evidence that somebody was listening.

"Maybe that's what God intended for me to do all along," he said.

I remember telling him how I wanted him to be mad. I wanted him to be as angry as I was that they had done him wrong. But he wouldn't go there. There were more important things to be bitter about. "If I was going to be angry about something in my life, I would have been angry "cause they didn't let me attend Sarasota High School or the University of Florida when I was growing up in the segregated South. I would have been angry because back then, I didn't have a chance. But on this (Hall of Fame) vote, I had a chance. Someone just didn't see fit to vote for me, that's all."

Well now, maybe in his death, somebody in baseball can get it right.

If the soul-less historians and pseudo-intellectuals couldn't get it right by voting Buck into Cooperstown, maybe Bud Selig can correct their mistake by naming the Negro Leagues wing of the baseball Hall of Fame after ol' Buck.

The John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil Wing.

If Selig doesn't have the authority to do it on his own, he certainly has the political sway to influence the minds of people like Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to get the wheels turning. Saturday, Clark talked about how O'Neil was "one of the greatest ambassadors baseball has ever known. He was a giant of a man whose wisdom, kindness and generosity of spirit will live on forever in all those whom he touched and who touched him."

Fine. If you believe that, put Buck's name on a bronze plaque over the entry arch to the Negro Leagues wing.

No one deserves it more, because no one told the story of the Negro Leagues better. Buck used to hate the way Hollywood characterized the Negro Leagues as light-hearted minstrel shows and the life of the players as a hardscrabble road of segregated rooming houses and bounced checks on payday.

"It was nothin' like that, son," O'Neil told me constantly. "At least not with the Kansas City Monarchs. We were the New York Yankees of the Negro Leagues. We stayed in the finest hotels. We ate at the grandest restaurants. We rode in a custom-made bus. They all just happened to be all black-owned, but they were the best places to be."

He spent his free days and nights in hotel lobbies talking jazz with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn. The musicians would spend their days watching Buck and Satchel and Josh Gibson play baseball, then the players would spend their nights sitting in smoky after-hours joints listening to the musicians do their thing. All the great baseball players would be there, and so, too, would the likes of Joe Louis, Ray Robinson and Jesse Owens.

"It was nothin' like the movies," Buck would say.

"It was a wonderful life," he would say. "A wonderful life. Mmmm hmmmm."

___

JIM SALISBURY, The Philadelphia Inquirer, on CORY LIDLE:

NEW YORK -- Always personable, always eager to chat, Cory Lidle showed up at Phillies spring-training camp in February, bubbling with enthusiasm for the new rich-kid's hobby he had picked up over the winter.

Actually, flying wasn't just a hobby for Lidle. It was a passion. In just a few months, he had earned his pilot's license and bought a small airplane. He talked about being able to fly from his Southern California home to Pebble Beach for a round of golf, or over to Las Vegas for a day at the poker table.

Whenever someone mentioned the dangers of flying a small plane, the veteran pitcher and rookie pilot winked with bulletproof certainty and said that he'd be just fine, thank you.

"I'm safe up there," he said in June. "I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane."

He said it with such confidence that you didn't bother to speak the words you wanted to. Inside, you said them anyway.

"Be careful."

This is a tough one. Cory Lidle was killed when his plane crashed in Manhattan on Wednesday. He was 34, with a whole life ahead of him. He had a wife and a 6-year-old son, a cute little guy named Chris who used to visit his dad in the Phillies clubhouse.

During three seasons, we watched Lidle pitch for the Phillies. His last game for the team was a good one. He beat the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citizens Bank Park on July 27. He struck out eight and walked none in eight innings.

Three days later, he was traded to the New York Yankees. Shortly after joining the Yanks, he took a trip to Philadelphia to retrieve his airplane. On Wednesday, he was in the cockpit when that plane crashed into the side of a high-rise apartment building. Within minutes, the television cameras were there, and we all saw the fiery aftermath, not knowing at the time who was in the plane. A short while later, the crawl on the bottom of the TV screen said the plane had been registered to a major-league pitcher named Cory Lidle.

In an instant, this terrible, terrible accident had a name and a face and a story. Words that had been spoken -- and not spoken -- quickly were recalled.

"I'm safe up there."

Be careful.

It all seemed so surreal. Still does.

One half of the baseball world is gathered in New York for the National League Championship Series between the Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The other half is in Oakland, Calif., for the American League Championship Series between the Tigers and the Athletics.

Lidle's plane crashed a little before three in the afternoon, just as players on both coasts were arriving in their respective clubhouses. Televisions are plentiful in big-league clubhouses. At Shea Stadium in New York, just a few miles from the crash, players watched live coverage of the accident as they prepared for Game One of the NL Championship Series, which eventually was rained out.

At first in those clubhouses, it was a plane crash. In time, it became a death in the family.

Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson was going over a game plan with scheduled starting pitcher Tom Glavine when he heard of the tragedy.

"You wanted to believe it wasn't true," said Peterson, who had been Lidle's pitching coach when Lidle pitched for the A's in 2001 and 2002. "It's just sadder than sad."

Lidle pitched for seven big-league teams. He had a slew of former teammates, some of whom are playing in the NLCS.

"I'm at a loss for words," said Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado, a teammate of Lidle's in Toronto. "Sometimes we take things for granted. Life is precious. This is horrible news for the baseball family."

To the cynic, Lidle was a journeyman, barely a .500 pitcher. To those who understand how difficult it is to get to the big leagues and stay there for nine seasons, he was a survivor. He had his elbow surgically rebuilt early in his career. He also survived the slings and arrows of players' union members after he was coerced into becoming a replacement player for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1995 during the labor dispute.

Lidle was traded to the Phillies in August 2004 and pitched well enough to earn a two-year, $6.3 million contract extension. He discovered his passion for flying last off-season, and it immediately concerned Phillies officials. They called him and warned him he could forfeit part of his contract if he was injured flying in a small plane. The pitcher assured his bosses that he was safe up there.

Lidle was not the most popular guy in the Phillies clubhouse, though he was scheduled to attend Mike Lieberthal's wedding in November. Some teammates still resented his being a replacement player. Others resented him for criticizing the team's will to win after he had been traded to the Yankees.

It all seems trivial now that there's been this death in the family and Cory Lidle is gone. He said he was safe up there. He said it with bulletproof certainty. Oh, that he would have been right.

___

GORDON JONES, Allentown Morning Call, on DONOVAN McNABB:

PHILADELPHIA -- Both of Philadelphia's major newspapers endorsed his MVP candidacy Wednesday.

Yes, he's Donovan McNabb. But he didn't necessarily approve that message.

Not five games into the season -- that is, with fewer than one-third of the precincts reporting.

"And that's not my focus anyway," the Eagles quarterback said. "My focus is obviously trying to get to the Super Bowl and win it. Individual accolades, I don't pay any attention to. It's all about team success for me."

Fair enough. He will ultimately be judged by how successful this team is, anyway.

But the numbers -- especially the numbers on his birth certificate -- indicate he belongs in the MVP discussion and the Super Bowl discussion, that his physical skills and mental acuity have converged at an Everest-like peak.

In other words, his time is now. He is as good as he's ever been, and more than likely as good as he's going to get.

He is 30, and turns 31 on Nov. 25. The average age of a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, according to the Birds' weekly news release, is 30.75.

At age 31 Joe Montana, while not a Super Bowl winner, had the second-highest completion percentage of his career (66.8) and threw his most touchdown passes (31). Johnny Unitas threw his fewest interceptions as a full-time starter at that age (six). Troy Aikman fired his second-most TD passes (19). And Terry Bradshaw, en route to leading the Steelers to yet another Super Bowl title, threw his most touchdown passes (26) -- and, uh, his most interceptions (25).

It is not an ironclad rule. Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre all had better seasons, either before or after their 31st birthdays. But it is true often enough to give it some heft.

Sean Payton is head coach of the New Orleans Saints, the team the Eagles face Sunday, and has caught McNabb's act from the opposite sideline numerous times, while serving as a QB coach or offensive assistant for the Giants and Cowboys. And on a conference call Wednesday Payton talked about different mileposts he has seen McNabb pass -- "moments where you say, 'Hey, you took a step tonight."'

Maybe that's what we all saw Sunday, when on an emotional day -- the day when what's-his-name returned to Philadelphia with the Dallas Cowboys -- McNabb was the best player on the field, beating a cornerback blitz with a touchdown bomb to Hank Baskett; converting a flea-flicker into another scoring strike, to Reggie Brown; piercing the Cowboys' secondary with a 60-yard dart to L.J. Smith.

"He's playing with a lot of confidence," Payton said.

As reflected in the numbers McNabb has put up, numbers regurgitated by both Philly papers Wednesday. The Inquirer noted that he leads the league in passing yardage (1,602) and touchdown passes (11), but has thrown just one interception. And that publication trotted out this tidbit, courtesy of Elias: No quarterback has passed for over 1,500 yards and 10 or more TDs, while throwing no more than one pick, in a team's first five games.

The Daily News reported that McNabb is on pace to surpass Marino's single-season yardage record (5,084) and at his current rate can throw for 30 or more touchdowns and 10 or fewer interceptions for the second time in three years. No one else has ever done that even once.

Drew Brees, the opposing pitcher this Sunday, said he appreciates McNabb's consistency, his ability to improvise. And the way he wins.

"He's gained the respect of every guy in this league, including myself," Brees said. "He's just an all-around great player."

We will learn the extent of his greatness now. Now, more than ever.

___

JASON WHITLOCK, Kansas City Star, on BUCK O'NEIL:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's a reason Buck didn't want us to cry for him. It would dishonor the way he lived his life. Buck, as we all know, never wallowed in pity or shirked responsibility.

No one can honestly feel sorry for Buck O'Neil. We would all take his 94 years. The tears we'll shed in the aftermath of his death will symbolize our loss and our fear of living up to his standard.

What Would Buck Do, if he were us and dealing with the death of a man who taught everyone he came in contact with how to live, love and laugh?

Buck would get involved, fill the void and love a little harder.

So what are we going to do?

Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Buck's right-hand man, said Saturday afternoon that "Buck has prepared us well."

Kendrick was talking about the people entrusted to keep the museum growing and relevant, the people who shared Buck's passion for making sure Negro Leaguers received what was long overdue -- respect.

But Kendrick was speaking to all of us, the people who benefited from Buck's love, the people who took pride in the positive light Buck spread on our community.

Buck prepared us, too. What are we going to do? Will we let Buck's dream fade? Will we support his passion now that he's gone and won't be around on 18th and Vine to greet us?

Buck was so much more than just baseball and funny stories about Satchel Paige. He was more than the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Buck's passion was teaching us how to live, inspiring young people to strive for their goals. The museum wants to raise $15 million and build a school that will bear Buck's name. The fundraising drive is called "Thanks A Million, Buck."

We owe Buck thanks. And we owe it to ourselves to teach young people about Buck O'Neil, about achieving academically and personally despite difficult obstacles.

Buck O'Neil can't be replaced by one man. The museum will never have an ambassador as charismatic and authentic as Buck. Most of the former Negro Leaguers are dead. No one can match Buck's energy and love of small talk.

It's going to take all of us to do Buck's job. We're going to have to promote the museum, support its functions, donate to "Thanks A Million, Buck" and tell the stories Buck once told.

Buck touched us all -- housewives, factory workers, athletes, politicians, corporate executives, old, young and in-between. When I checked my voice mail Saturday morning, there were messages from people of every stripe wanting to talk about Buck's life and their memories of Buck.

Good. Let's talk, and then let's take action. Let's get involved. Let's do what Buck would do.

He was gracious with strangers, quick to forgive an injustice and generous with his money and time. Buck represented the best of Kansas City, the best of America.

He set a standard we should all strive to achieve.

When you think of Buck, don't think of his exclusion from the Hall of Fame. You'll miss the point. Exclusion from the Hall and from the major leagues never diminished Buck. The Hall and baseball were diminished by Buck's exclusion.

If we don't embrace Buck's dream and support his living legacy -- the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum -- we will be diminished.

___

GREGORY CLAY, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, on BUCK O'NEIL:

WASHINGTON -- Buck O'Neil, poignant and exuberant, was quick to circle the bases on this issue.

The time period was one day in April of 1997 -- with the 50th anniversary-remembrance-reflection of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in the forefront of the major leagues and a vibrant sports nation.

I called O'Neil in Kansas City, Mo., that day. During the conversation, I asked him to name the best player he ever saw.

Without hesitation, he responded, "Oscar Charleston."

But I had the temerity to challenge him on that response.

I asked, "But, Mr. O'Neil, what about Henry Aaron or Joe DiMaggio or Barry Bonds or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth or . . ."

That's where the ellipsis in the sentence surfaced as I sensed a restlessness emanating from O'Neil's disposition.

He stopped my roll call of names, saying with a measured tone of conviction:

"Young brother, what did I say?"

I said, "You said Oscar Charleston was the best player you ever saw."

He said, "All right, then."

The message: I might be 86, but I know what the hell I'm talking about; and, yes, I am lucid.

As pop singer Johnny Nash from the 1970s might say, "I can see clearly now."

O'Neil, who played and managed with stellar results in the Negro Leagues dating back to the 1930s, died on Friday night at age 94 (his funeral is scheduled for Saturday). But his life and role in our society proved much more expansive than runs, hits and errors.

He also was the resident raconteur for Negro League baseball and the de facto ambassador for baseball in general.

For the record, O'Neil, in 1997, said this about the other "Big O" -- Oscar McKinley Charleston -- in my story that was published in various newspapers:

"He's the best player I have ever seen -- period. He could do everything. He had the power of Albert Belle, speed of Lou Brock, great hands, a better fielder than Willie Mays, a little quicker than Willie. He had the throwing ability of Roberto Clemente."

Charleston, a centerfielder-first baseman, played for several Negro League teams from 1915 to 1944; he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1976.

O'Neil spent the better part of a half-century spreading the message about Charleston and others for all who would listen.

In 1991, O'Neil was among approximately 10 former Negro League players who were honored at a special reception during the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Kansas City. Other players, such as Connie Johnson and Doc Horn, also told their stories and relived their memories that summer day in a downtown hotel ballroom.

But no one could replicate the romantic imagery and vivid recall of the halcyon days of Negro League baseball like the nattily attired O'Neil. He spoke of Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Robinson, when he played for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs before later joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in one of the most seminal and transcendent events in the history of the United States.

Let's not forget that 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's monumental achievement. Sadly, O'Neil won't be around to provide his unparalleled treasure trove of personal anecdotes and illustrious recollections for the occasion.

In the summer of 1994, the ever-dapper O'Neil attended the inaugural UNITY Journalists of Color Convention in Atlanta. He accompanied highly acclaimed documentary film maker Ken Burns, who attended the convention to promote his new historical series, "Baseball," that was to be aired on PBS later that year. Broadcast in "nine innings" or installments, no less.

That time, the hotel ballroom wasn't in reception-style mode. Instead, it was all about the game scene. The ballroom was set up with popcorn machines, hot dogs and Cracker Jack. In other words, the ambiance for a curious audience was a symbolic day at the ballpark.

We were captivated as Burns showed video clips of his upcoming brilliant series. Later during that session, as Burns discussed the hows, whens and the whys of his documentary, O'Neil focused on the personalities, feelings and moments.

That year, Burns said of O'Neil, "No one comes close to Buck in humanity -- a man without hatred, a man of backbone."

And when it came to chronicling Negro League history and telling stories of generations past, O'Neil, raconteur supreme, didn't settle for a single -- he went for the home run.

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