Friday, November 13, 2009

Top 10 Sports Odd Couples

On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife.

Deep down, he knew she was right. But he also knew that, one day, he would return to her.

With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return.

Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?

That was the opening narration in the 1st couple of seasons of the TV version of The Odd Couple, a situation comedy based on Neil Simon's play. The play debuted on Broadway in 1965, with Art Carney as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar. (Simon said he wrote the Oscar part with Matthau in mind, but Matthau supposedly wanted to play Felix. It wouldn'’t have worked.)

In 1968, a film version was made, with Jack Lemmon playing Felix and Matthau again as Oscar. From 1970 to 1975, ABC aired the sitcom, and it has become next to impossible to imagine anyone but Tony Randall as Felix and anyone but Jack Klugman as Oscar – and while Randall went on to Love, Sidney and Klugman to Quincy, M.E., it has become equally difficult to imagine them in any other roles.

I have, however, seen 2 other productions of the stage version of The Odd Couple, one a high school play and one a professional from the "Plays In the Park" series at Roosevelt Park in Edison, New Jersey, and both were really good, especially considering that the high schoolers were playing middle-aged men. I really believed these 16, 17-year-old guys were Felix, Oscar, Murray, Speed and the others. (I also saw the "Plays In the Park" guys do a pretty good version of Grease, with a tricked-out golf-cart standing in for "Greased Lightning" the car.)

Now, the year that Gloria Unger asked Felix to hit the bricks has never been specified. But since the sitcom began in 1970, it could have been 1969. Which means it could have been 40 years ago today that Felix moved in with Oscar and the hilarity began to ensue.

Top 10 Odd Couples In Sports

These are all people in sports who, at least for a time, plied their trade together, but seemed opposites, and often feuded. In some cases they eventually made up, in some they did not.

The "Felix" character is listed first, the "Oscar" equivalent second.

10. Al Kaline and Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, 1965 to 1970. Kaline has been Detroit's most popular living sports figure for over 50 years – more even than Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman. For 5 years, McLain was a talented pitcher who tried to get away with a lot – but not everything they said he tried to get away with in Year 6.

Without McLain's remarkable 31-6 season in 1968, Kaline would have retired without appearing in a World Series. But McLain alienated so many of his teammates by his annus horribilis of 1970 that few had anything good to say about him when he was gone.

And even in 2007, when the twice-imprisoned McLain published his memoir I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, he still took shots at Tiger teammates like Kaline, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich. Tug McGraw may have thrown the pitch and used it as the title of his first autobiography, but if there was ever a pitcher in baseball who was a true screwball, it was Denny McLain.
Mickey Stanley has to sit between McLain and Kaline.

9. Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles, 2004-05. McNabb is no slob, but in being willing to do whatever it takes, including risking injury, he is the Oscar here. T.O. is the Felix because he's so whiny and needy and has to have everything done his way.
They were only together for 2 seasons, and with injuries to both it added up to maybe 1 season's worth of games. But if you're an Eagles fan, it probably felt like longer. A lot longer. T.O. is the Buffalo Bills' problem as of this writing.

8. Julius Erving and Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers, 1982-86. Doctor J was the most stylish player in NBA history – on the court, anyway. (Off the court, even the Doctor couldn't touch Walt Frazier.) By comparison, Big Mo was, to use a hockey term, a grinder. He didn't play dirty, but he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. The Philadelphia 76ers reached the NBA Finals with Julius in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and the Conference Finals in 1981, but they couldn't get over the hump.

Philadelphia fans have often mocked the pretty boys of sports, and Dr. J was a rare exception. But the Sixers needed that blood-sweat-and-tears type to get them to the title. Andrew Toney was one, Bobby Jones was another, but Moses Malone was a special player. Few players have ever had the kind of season he had in 1982-83. Dr. J got his ring, but I hope he at least took Moses out for a nice dinner at Le Bec Fin afterwards.
Big Mo (left) was just what the Doctor (right) ordered.

7. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls, 1987-98. I'm not sure I have to explain this one. I suppose I could list Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant – but they would both be "Felixes."
6. Punch Imlach and Frank Mahovlich, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1958-68. Punch (real name George) was the coach and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs team that won 4 Stanley Cups in 7 years from 1962 to 1967. Mahovlich, a.k.a. the Big M, was his best player.
In the NHL's official 75th Anniversary book, hockey historian Charles Wilkins wrote, "It has been postulated (by, among others, Frank himself) that Punch drove Frank nuts. It has also been postulated that Punch was one of the few people who understood Frank. It stands to reason that one extraterrestrial – one, albeit, from the opposite end of the galaxy – should understand another." For the record, Imlach was Toronto born and raised, while Mahovlich is from Timmins, Ontario.

Today, Mahovlich is with the Senators in Ottawa – but not the hockey team. He was appointed a member of the Canadian Senate. (Their government is a bit different from ours.)

5. Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, Dallas Cowboys, 1989-94. True, Jimmy is quite fussy about his hair, but that's about it. And Felix would probably have found Jerry to be an incredibly crass, classless individual.
Well, let me put it this way: "New York class" and "Dallas class" are 2 very different things. Jerry is definitely the "Felix" here.

4. George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, New York Yankees, off and on from 1975 to 1988. This might have been Number 1 if it could ever have lasted. Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News has compared it to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: When they were together, they couldn't stand one another; when they were apart, they missed each other terribly. Liz and Dick married and divorced twice, while the Boss and the Brat split up 5 times.

But they will be forever linked. Without George, Billy would never have managed the Yankees; without Billy, George might never have won a World Series. Actually, you could throw in Reggie Jackson and make this an Odd Trio, although there wasn't a comparable character in The Odd Couple to Mister October, despite several sports-connected figures having appeared.
Billy, George, Thurman Munson, Reggie.
Thurman is the only one not willing to smile.

3. Vince Lombardi and Paul Hornung, Green Bay Packers, 1959-67. Hornung was one of the greatest all-around football players who ever lived. Just ask him. Lombardi never bragged about his achievements, though they were legion. His greatest achievement may have been getting along with Hornung and getting him to make the most of his talent for the sake of his team.
Hornung, Bart Starr, Lombardi

2. Christy Mathewson and John McGraw, New York Giants, 1902-16. It doesn't seem right to list the player first and the manager second, but, in this case, the player was the Felix and the manager was the Oscar.

This was a total reverse of the Lombardi-Hornung relationship: McGraw was the short, nasty, profane, hot-tempered bastard, which makes him sound a lot like Lombardi, but Lombardi would never have cheated to win. McGraw, as a player, was proud of the corners he cut. (Literally: If he was on 1st base, and he thought the umpire wasn't looking, he'd run right across the infield to 3rd base without going for 2nd. He got away with it a few times in those days of just 1 umpire.)

By contrast, Mathewson was tall, handsome, and a superb all-around athlete like Hornung (his alma mater, Bucknell University, named its football stadium after him), but would have been totally out of place in a red-light district, never needed a curfew, and the only time he ever gambled was on checkers. (But he was a hustler at that game, and very good at it.)
The Little Napoleon and Big Six

McGraw used to say, "The main thing is to win," while Lombardi said, "Winning isn't everything, but it's the only thing." Still, I think Lombardi would have appreciated Mathewson more than McGraw. Hornung? Definitely would have liked McGraw better.

1. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, 2004-present. Okay, maybe A-Rod isn't a slob, but his personal life, his contract issues and his on-field performance have often been quite messy. And Derek doesn't whine when a relationship ends. Or honk when things don't go his way. Then again, we don't know what he does when the cameras aren't on, do we?
But, as with the TV show – which ended in 1975 with Gloria taking Felix back and Oscar getting the 1049 Park Avenue apartment all to himself again – things have worked out.

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