I love sports. I loved playing them. I love watching them on TV. I love writing about sports − especially the stories that tell us about our humanity. Here are two short stories about sports and the athletes that connect with my humanity.
The European Soccer Championship will be played in Kiev, Ukraine, in a few days. Germany is one of the four teams left in the competition. Seventy years ago in Kiev a different kind of soccer game was played.
The German Army was occupying Ukraine − part of the Soviet Union then − and the authorities decided to have a little competition with a team from the conquering, well-fed Germans playing a team of locals. The surprise was that the Kiev amateurs who worked at the bread factory were good. They played on a team called FC Start and even though they were wartime thin, they could really play the game.
In a game publicized by handbills posted around the city, the Germans and the bread makers of Kiev played with the S.S. watching intently − and probably warning the Kievers that the “Master Race” was going to prevail − or else.
The goalie for the Ukrainians was injured early in the game, revived, and played poorly allowing three quick goals. The score was tied at halftime. According to legend the S.S. goons warned the locals at the half that they would pay a penalty if the German soldiers lost the game. But this was much more than a game. This was war. The Kiev bread makers took the game to the soldiers and beat them 5-3.
Soon after, six of the Kiev players were arrested and taken to a concentration camp nearby. They worked as slave laborers for a month. One day the Commandant called everybody in the yard and announced that a punishment was to be meted out. Three of the six amateur soccer players from FC Start who had beaten the German team were executed on the spot.
There is a statue near the stadium where the European Championships will be played commemorating the triumph of the brave and heroic players of FC Start in 1942.
The story inspired several films including the 1981 film “Escape From Victory” (see clip below), staring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow, Daniel Massey, and Pelè.
Last Sunday night, the Mets played the Yankees on the ESPN featured game. R.A. Dickey versus C.C. Sabathia. “The Knuckleballer” against the great power-pitcher C.C., who is 6’8″ and 300 pounds soaking wet.
I have been excited about R.A. Dickey all year. I’ve been cajoling my friend Jerry Levine to review his autobiography for TMW. Why? Because R.A. is the “Everyman” having that one impossible, incredible amazing season before our eyes at the age of 37.
He was a washed up pitcher a few years ago who had struggled through Minor League Baseball after being good enough to be a #1 draft pick in 1996. He had lost the fastball of his youth, but he had determination and pitching moxie − and he knew how to throw a knuckleball.
A knuckleball is actually thrown off the fingertips. If it’s thrown perfectly it has almost no rotation and will move erratically as it nears the plate. Nobody knows how it will act as it dances up to the batter. Often the catcher will miss catching it. A pitcher struggles to throw it for strikes.
There have been a few memorable knuckleball pitchers in baseball history. Phil Niekro won 300 games and is in the Hall of Fame. His brother Joe was good too. Wilbur Wood had a few wonderful seasons and started 49 games for the White Sox in 1972. But knuckleballers are an oddity. Today, Dickey is the one and only devotee of the pitch in the Majors.
And at 37 he is having a miracle season. Recently he pitched two one-hit shutouts in a row and had a streak of 44 ⅔ scoreless innings. He has tamed his knuckler and can throw it for strikes, change speeds, adjust its height, and baffle hitters by throwing an occasional fastball at 82. He is 11-1 currently with an eight-game winning streak.
The matchup Sunday night had a big buildup in New York because of the Mets-Yankees rivalry, but for me it was a chance to see my new hero − R.A. Dickey − a little bit of “The Natural” and “Damn Yankees” being played out in real life, by a guy who wrote about being abused as a child in his autobiography which was published before the season started. R.A. Dickey is an overnight success − at 37 − in Major League Baseball. He may start the All-Star Game for the National League.
In the game Sunday night he gave up five runs in a no-decision. Sabathia did the same. But for somebody who lives baseball and relishes the stories of the game, it was one I will remember. R.A. − you’re the man.
Questions: Is American football as a participation sport on the decline?
What’s you’re favorite sports movie?