Thursday, December 31, 2020

Good Riddance to a Bad Year

Mercifully, calendar year 2020 has finally come to a close. And we are all better off for it. 

Not everything that happened this year was bad. After waiting 35 years, after my diagnosis, I finally got my first hip replacement. I'm still waiting on the second, for reasons I won't get into here, but that should happen early next year, probably in March. And I was finally able to move out of a residence that I did not like, to say the least, and into a much better place. 

It was not an especially good year for my teams. Arsenal won the FA Cup, but in the next season, they have gotten off to the worst start in a League season in 46 years. The Yankees and the Red Bulls made the Playoffs, but flopped once they got there. East Brunswick football notched a .500 season. The Devils and Rutgers football would have been lucky to even do that well. 

The big story of 2020, of course, was the Coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of over 350,000 Americans. What's even scarier that, had he shown just the slightest bit more of caring about it, Donald Trump probably would have gotten a 2nd term as President.

But he didn't, and America finally had enough revulsion of him to elect Joe Biden as our new President. No matter what Trump wants done, or believes can be done, Biden will become President on January 20th, 2021.

Notable deaths in sports included some victims of the Coronavirus, and many others that weren't:

* From baseball: Don Larsen, Tony Fernández, Johnny Antonelli, Jimmy Wynn, Al Kaline, Jim Frey, Bob Watson, Claudell Washington, John McNamara, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Jay Johnstone, Bob Gibson, Ron Perranoski, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro.

* From football: Sam Wyche, Jerry Norton, Chris Doleman, Willie Wood, Del Shofner, Timmy Brown, Tom Dempsey, Bobby Mitchell, Pete Retzlaff, Willie Davis, Mike Curtis, Don Shula, Ken Riley, Jim Kiick, Larry Wilson, Gale Sayers, Fred Dean, Herb Adderley, Ray Perkins, Paul Hornung, Jake Scott and Kevin Greene.

* From basketball: David Stern, Dick Schnittker, Morgan Wootten, Kobe Bryant, Bora Stanković, Curly Neal, Les Hunter, Jim Tucker, Jerry Sloan, Eddie Sutton, Wes Unseld, Harry Glickman, Lou Henson, Lute Olson, John Thompson, Billy Tubbs, Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones.

* From hockey: Pete Babando, Henri Richard, Pat Stapleton, Dale Hawerchuk and Eddie Shack.

* From soccer: Hans Tilkowski, Rob Rensenbrink, Norman Hunter, Trevor Cherry, Tony Dunne, Jack Charlton, Wim Suurbier, Nobby Stiles, Ray Clemence, Diego Maradona, Papa Bouba Diop, Viktor Ponedelnik, Paolo Rossi and Gérard Houllier.

* From tennis: Ashley Cooper.

* Olympic Gold Medalists: 1952 Hungarian swimmer Éva Székely, 1960 Soviet (Georgian) high jumper Robert Shavlakadze, 1952 Czech javelin thrower Dana Zátopková, 1968 Soviet (Latvian) javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis, 1956 American sprinter Bobby Morrow, 1956 American boxer Pete Rademacher, 1964 German decathlete Willi Holdorf, 1952 American hurdler Charles Moore, and 1960 American decathlete Rafer Johnson.

* And Ben Cross, who played 1924 British Olympic Champion runner Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire; and Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42.

There have been Wi-Fi problems at my new residence, making it very difficult to write these new entries, and all but impossible, for now, to write the necessary obituary posts for K.C. Jones and Phil Niekro. When my Wi-Fi is restored, I will write said posts, and backdate them so it looks like they appeared when they should have.

In the meantime, congratulations: You have gotten out of 2020 alive. My condolences to you for anyone close to you who didn't.

Have a happy, and safe, new year.

*

The details of this countdown are dependent on COVID restrictions:

Days until the next game of the U.S. National Soccer Team: Unknown. There are no games scheduled, for either the men's or the women's team.

Days until the next Arsenal game: 2, this Saturday, at 3:00 PM New York time, away to Birmingham-area team West Bromwich Albion.

Days until the New Jersey Devils start their 2021 season: 14, on Thursday night, January 14, home to the Boston Bruins.

Days until the Devils again play a local rival: 19, on Tuesday, January 19, against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Days until Joe Biden is elected the 46th President of the United States, and Donald Trump becomes eligible for criminal prosecution: 20.

Days until the next New York Red Bulls game: Unknown. MLS has yet to release a schedule for the 2021 season.

Days until the Red Bulls again play a local rival: See the previous answer.

Days until the next North London Derby: 72, on Saturday, March 13, at 10:00 AM New York time, at the Emirates Stadium. A little over 10 weeks. The British TV networks may have the time and/or the date changed in order to get better ratings, or so they believe.

Days until the New York Yankees open the 2021 season: 91, on Thursday, 1:00 PM, home to the Toronto Blue Jays. Just 3 months.

Days until the next Yankees series against the Boston Red Sox begins: 155, on Friday, June 4, at 7:00 PM, at Yankee Stadium II.

Days until the COVID-delayed Euro 2020 opens: 177, on Friday, June 26. Under 6 months. Games will be played all over Europe, with the Semifinals and the Final at the new Wembley Stadium in London.

Days until the COVID-delayed 2020 Olympics open in Tokyo, Japan: 204, on Friday, July 23. Under 7 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick High School football game: 246, on Friday, September 3, at 7:00 PM, home to arch-rival Old Bridge. A little over 8 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge football game: See the previous answer.

Days until the next Rutgers University football game: 247, on Saturday, September 4, at 12:00 noon, home to Temple University.

Days until the next election for Governor of New Jersey and Mayor of New York City: 306, on Tuesday, November 2. A little over 10 months.

Days until the next Rutgers-Penn State football game: 331, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 27, at 12:00 noon, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Under 11 months.

Days until the 1st Baseball Hall of Fame election for which Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will be eligible, and we will know for sure whether steroid use keeps a player out, or if it's only perception that does: 390, on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. Under 13 months.

Days until the next Winter Olympics open in Beijing, China: 400, on Friday, February 4, 2022. A little over 13 months.

Days until the next elections for Congress and for Governor of most States, including New York and Pennsylvania: 677, on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Under 2 years, or a  little over 22 months.

Days until the next World Cup opens: 690, on Friday, November 21, 2022, in Doha, Qatar. Under 2 years, or under 23 months.

Days until the next Women's World Cup opens: 921, on Friday, July 10, 2023, jointly held in the neighboring nations of Australia and New Zealand. A little over 2 and a half years, or a little over 30 months.

Days until the next Presidential election: 1,405, on Tuesday, November 5, 2024. Under 4 years, or a little over 46 months.

Scores On This Historic Day: December 31, 1999 & January 1, 2000, the Millennium

December 31, 1999: The Millennium arrives. The people of planet Earth made it. At a terrible cost. But we hadn't destroyed ourselves. It felt like a great achievement.

January 1, 2000: As time zone after time zone turned over from 11:59 to 12:00, there was great joy -- literally, all over the world.

It didn't last. So far, the 21st Century has been a bust. In words that have been attributed to Yankee Legend Yogi Berra, then 74 years old, "The future ain't what it used to be."

December 31 was a Friday. Baseball was out of season, and no NFL games were played. As it turned out, no NBA games were scheduled for the day, either.

There were 2 games scheduled in the NHL. One was, by NHL standards, an ancient rivalry, going back to 1926. At the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the host Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blachkawks played to a 4-4 tie. (There would be no shootouts in the NHL until the 2005-06 season.)

And in a matchup that had only been possible for 6 years, the Dallas Stars beat the team thenknown as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 5-4 at the Reunion Arena in Dallas.

January 1 was a Saturday. Still no baseball, and still no NFL games. But there were 7 NHL games, about a half-full slate:

* One team in the New York Tri-State Area was in action: The New Jersey Devils traveled to what's now named the TD Garden, and played the Boston Bruins to a 2-2 tie.

* The St. Louis Blues and the Washington Capitals played to a 1-1 tie at what's now named the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

* In a regional rivalry, the Buffalo Sabres beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 8-1 at what's now named the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

* In a regional rivalry, the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Atlanta Thrashers, 4-2 at what's now State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (The Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets in 2011.)

* In not just a regional but an intrastate rivalry, the Florida Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-5 at what's now named the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.

* The Nashville Predators beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2 at what's now named the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

* And the Edmonton Oilers beat the Phoenix Coyotes, 5-4 at what's currently (presumably, temporarily) named the Phoenix Suns Arena in downtown Phoenix. (The Coyotes were renamed the Arizona Coyotes in 2014.)

And 6 college football bowl games were played:

* At 11:00 AM Eastern Time, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the Outback Bowl was played: Number 21 Georgia beat Number 19 Purdue, 28-25.

* Also at 11 Eastern, 10:00 AM Central Time, at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas, the Cotton Bowl Classic was played: Number 24 Arkansas beat Number 14 Texas, 27-6. This was once an intense rivalry, but Arkansas' 1992 move from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference moved it to the back burner.

* At 12:30 PM Eastern Time, at Alltel Stadium (now TIAA Bank Field) in Jacksonville, the Gator Bowl was played: Number 23 Miami beat Number 17 Georgia Tech, 28-13.

* At 1:00 PM Eastern Time, at the Florida Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium) in Orlando, the Florida Citrus Bowl was played: Number 9 Michigan State beat Number 10 Florida, 37-34.

* At 4:30 PM Eastern Time, 1:30 Pacific Time, at the Rose Bowl in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, the game of the same name was played: Number 4 Wisconsin beat Number 22 Stanford, 17-9.

* And at 8:30 PM Eastern Time, at Pro Player Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium) in Miami Gardens, the Orange Bowl was played: Number 8 Michigan beat Number 5 Alabama, 35-34.

It was a bit strange for it to be New Year's Day, and see Michigan playing in a game other than the Rose Bowl, and also to see Alabama playing on the day, but not in the Sugar Bowl.

Under the format then in place, the Bowl Championship Series, the Fiesta Bowl was played on January 2, at Sun Devil Stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Number 3 Nebraska beat Number 6 Tennessee, 31-21.

And the matchup that the BCS was intended to set up? It was hard to argue that these 2 undefeated teams weren't the top 2 teams in the country. At the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl was played between Number 1 Florida State and Number 2 Virginia Tech. Florida State won, 46-29.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Phil Niekro, 1939-2020

The knuckleball is the oddest pitch in baseball. It is also the hardest to catch, and catchers hate trying. Nobody has thrown a knuckleball in the major leagues longer, and perhaps no one threw it better, then Phil Niekro.

Philip Henry Niekro was born on April 1st, 1939, in Blaine, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Lansing, Ohio. Both towns are close to the Ohio River, near Wheeling, West Virginia, and about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

He attended Bridgeport High School, in the nearby town of Bridgeport. Among its other alumni have been Phil's brother Joe Niekro, Boston Celtics basketball legend John Havlicek, Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bill Jobko, and legendary Iowa State University wrestling coach Bobby Douglas.

All 5 were born between 1935 and 1944, and Phil Niekro and Havlicek grew up as close friends.

In 1988, Sports Illustrated published an article by Ron Fimrite titled "The Valley Boys," focusing on the Wheeling Valley, centering on the town of Martins Ferry:

Old-time Pro Football Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle was a Valley boy. So were Bob Gain and Calvin Jones, Outland Trophy winners as the nation's best college linemen in 1950 and 1955. Chuck Howley, the Dallas linebacker who is the only member of a losing team to have ever won the Super Bowl MVP award, was another one. Bill Jobko (Ohio State) and Bob Jeter (Iowa), both of whom played in the Rose Bowl and later starred in the NFL, were Valley boys. Gene Freese, a big league infielder for many years, was one. And so was Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.

But there are six Valley boys who stand above the rest, giants in their sports. Two of them are already Hall of Famers; a third has only to wait his requisite five years for induction; and a fourth, grievously overlooked in the past, may yet get his just due. Another would surely have made the Hall of Fame of his sport were it not for one terrible mistake in his life. The sixth, until early this month, was still playing.

There are two brother combinations in this distinguished group, and all six grew up within seven miles of one another. Four, in fact, were born in Martins Ferry, and though three different high schools are involved, the schools are only minutes apart by car. Two were teammates and best friends.

They all came from immigrant mining families, and they were raised, by today's standards, in primitive circumstances. There were no fast cars in this crowd. No televisions. No rock concerts. Nor, for many years, indoor plumbing. And yet there is not one of them who would trade away the gift of his childhood. They are the pride of the Valley. And they, better than any, reveal the source of its indomitable spirit.

The brothers were Phil and Joe Niekro, and Lou and Alex Groza. Lou was an All-Pro offensive tackle and placekicker for the Cleveland Browns. Alex was a center who helped the University of Kentucky's "Fabulous Five" win the 1948 and 1949 National Championships, and the U.S. Olympic team win the Gold Medal at the 1948 Olympics in London. He was the 1950 NBA Rookie of the Year. The others were Havlicek and Pittsburgh Pirates 2nd baseman Bill Mazeroski.

Havlicek and Lou Groza were already in their respective sports' Hall of Fame. Phil Niekro was elected in 1997, in his 5th year of eligibility. Mazeroski, long hailed as the best defensive 2nd baseman of all time, and the hitter of the home run that won the 1960 World Series, continued to wait until 2001, and was finally elected.

Alex Groza looked like he was on course for the Hall of Fame, before the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball in 1951 ensnared Kentucky. Groza and his UK and Indianapolis Olympians teammates Ralph Beard and Dale Barnstable were banned for life by NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff. He never worked in the NBA again.

With no other pro league available, he went into coaching, at Bellarmine University in Louisville. His NBA ban did not apply to the ABA, nor did that league respect that ban. Their Kentucky Colonels and San Diego Conquistadors hired him.

Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers was also born nearby, in Steubenville, Ohio, also the hometown of singer-actor Dean Martin. However, when he was a boy, his father moved the family to California, so he did not remain a "Valley Boy."

*

The Niekro brothers' father was a coal miner of Polish descent, who had pitched in semi-pro baseball. A fellow miner taught him how to throw a knuckleball, and he taught his sons. In 1959, Phil signed with the Milwaukee Braves. In 1965, Major League Baseball instituted a draft, and Joe, then attending West Liberty University in West Virginia, was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1966. He chose not to sign with them, and was drafted again later in the year, this time by the Chicago Cubs. He made his debut for them in 1967.

By that point, Phil had already made his major league debut, having lost a season by serving in the U.S. Army in 1963, the dawn of the Vietnam War era, although not in combat. It was on April 15, 1964, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

He wore the Number 35 that he would wear for every game of his career. In a disaster of an inning for the Braves, the San Francisco Giants scored 10 runs. Phil was the 3rd pitcher the Braves used in the inning, and pitched to 1 batter, Jim Davenport, inducing an inning-ending groundout. The Braves tried to come back, but they didn't make it, and lost 10-8.

He appeared with the Braves in 10 games in 1964, without a decision. He appeared in 41 games in 1965, all but 1 in relief, going 2-3 with 6 saves. The Braves moved to Atlanta for the 1966, and Phil turned out to be not only the last remaining Brave who had played for them in Milwaukee, but the last active player for any team who had played for the Milwaukee Braves.

He split his time between starting and relief in 1966 and 1967, and became a full-time starter in 1968, going 14-12. In 1969, he became the Braves' ace, going 23-13, making his 1st All-Star Game, and helping them win the 1st-ever National League Western Division title. However, he ran out of gas in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, and lost to the Mets.

The '69 Division title was an outlier for the Braves, as they were generally out of contention from 1965 to 1981. In spite of that, Phil went 15-14 in 1971, and 16-12 in 1972. In 1973, he went 13-10, and on August 5, pitched the 1st no-hitter for the Braves after the move to Atlanta, against the San Diego Padres.

In 1974, a season which began for the Braves with the record-breaking 715th career home run by Hank Aaron, Phil led the NL with 20 wins, 18 complete games and 302 1/3rd innings pitched. He finished 3rd in the voting for the NL's Cy Young Award, the closest he would come to winning it. In 1973 and '74, Phil and his brother Joe were teammates on the Braves.
Joe (left) and Phil, but knuckleballers

Phil was only 15-15 in 1975, but, with Aaron having gone back to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers, the Braves needed someone as a representative in the All-Star Game -- which was held in Milwaukee -- and Phil was selected.

He went 17-11 in 1976. On May 29, he gave up a home run to his brother Joe, the only home run Joe would ever hit in the major leagues. Joe's son, Lance Niekro, appeared as a 1st baseman with the Giants in the 2003, '05, '06 and '07 seasons. He is now the head coach at Florida Southern University.

With with little support, Phil went 16-20 in 1977. He went 19-18 in 1978, but, despite that win total, led the NL in losses. In 1979, having turned 40, he led it in both wins and losses: With a 21-20 record, he will, most likely, remain the last pitcher in MLB history both win 20 games and lose 20 games in the same season.

Only 5 pitchers in the 150-year history of Major League Baseball have won 20 games in a season after turning 40. Cy Young did it in 1907 and 1908. In the 100 years of the Lively Ball Era, there have been only 4. Grover Cleveland Alexander did it in 1927. In the 60 years of the Expansion Era, there have been only 3. Warren Spahn did it in 1961 and 1963. In the 50+ years of the Divisional Play Era, there have been only 2. Phil Niekro did it in 1979. In the 20 years of the 21st Century, there has been only 1: Jamie Moyer in 2003. So it's that rare.

We have seen a few pitchers hang on longer than most, due to throwing the knuckleball, which puts less stress on the human arm than any other widely-known pitch. These include Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield. They also include Wilbur Wood, who went 24-20 for the Chicago White Sox in 1972, making him the last pitcher in the American League to both win and lose 20 in the same season.

But only 4 pitchers have gotten to the Hall of Fame having relied on the knuckler: Wilhelm, Jesse Haines, Ted Lyons, and Phil Niekro. Why so few? There are 2 reasons. One is that, because the ball moves around so much, catchers have such trouble catching it. Catchers then complain to their coaches, who tell their managers, who then tend to use pitchers who throw it less.

The other reason is that, if you don't throw it just right, it straightens out, and, as the slowest widely-known pitch, it becomes the easiest to hit. Wakefield used it to great effect for the Boston Red Sox in beating the Yankees in Games 1 and 4 of the 2003 ALCS, but proved the other side of it in relief in Game 7, giving up a Pennant-winning home run on a 69-mile-per-hour pitch to Aaron Boone.

Jim Bouton, who switched to the knuckler after losing his fastball by wrecking his elbow, said, "Coaches don't respect it. You can pitch 7 good innings with a knuckleball, and as soon as you walk a guy, they go, 'See, there's that damn knuckleball." R.A. Dickey, who won the NL Cy Young Award for the Mets in 2012, mainly using it, has said, "It takes a special manager to be able to really trust it, the bad and the good of it. Coaches are quick to banish the pitch after one bad outing."

Charlie Lau, later to be better known as baseball's foremost hitting instructor, once said, "There are two theories about catching the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work." And Bob Uecker, later to become a great broadcaster, and a good defensive catcher, but couldn't hit to save anybody's life, once said, "The best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until the ball stops rolling, and pick it up."

In his last season as a major league player, 1967, Uecker was on the Braves, and related this experience in catching Phil: "Niekro struck out a hitter once, and I never touched the ball. It hit me in the shinguard, bounced out to Clete Boyer at 3rd base, and he threw out the runner at 1st. Talk about a weird assist: 2–5–3 on a strikeout."

"Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner to throw the knuckleball at all times, and he would try to catch it," Phil said years later. "I led the league in ERA (1.87), and he led the league in passed balls."
Classically, the knuckleball is gripped not with the knuckles,
but with the tips of the index and middle fingers.


Phil kept pitching, and pitching well. Pete Rose, for once not loving being a big-league ballplayer, once said, "I work for 3 weeks to get my swing down pat, and Phil messes it up in one night... Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living."

Phil kept pitching, and kept getting insufficient support. In 1980, he went 15-18, leading the NL in losses. He was injured for a big chunk of 1981, and went just 7-7. Dale Murphy said, "When we weren't in the hunt, which was more times than not, that didn't stop his attitude and willingness to get out there. I just really admired him and loved being around him."

Bob Hope, a longtime Braves executive -- and no relation to the legendary entertainer of the same name, once a part-owner of the Indians -- said, "During that time frame, the teams weren't always very good. In fact, they were very bad sometimes. But we probably had the three highest-character athletes I've ever met: Phil Niekro, Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy... If you were a charity in Atlanta, you could always count on Phil Niekro participating in some way."

Finally, in 1982, the Braves got going. The team was then owned by broadcast executive Ted Turner, who put them on his network, "SuperStation" WTBS, and he gave them the nickname that somebody gave to the NFL's Dallas Cowboys: "America's Team." As the Chicago Cubs soon would as well, on "superstation" WGN, the Braves developed a national following, not just a regional one. And the revenue came in, allowing Turner to buy better players.

With Murphy coming into his own, winning the 1st of back-to-back NL Most Valuable Player awards, the Braves won the NL West, and Phil went 17-4, leading the NL with an .810 winning percentage. Unfortunately, just 2 outs from Game 1 of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals being an official game, the rain came, and it was suspended, ending Phil's good pitching. It was started from the beginning, and the Cards went on to sweep the Braves, ending their 1st postseason series in 13 years. It would be 9 years before they had another.

Phil went 11-10 for the Braves in 1983. He pitched 201 1/3rd innings. He was 44 years old. And yet, after the season, the Braves released him. He had pitched 20 seasons for them, winning 268 games. In the 150 seasons that this franchise has existed, going back to the 1871 Boston Red Stockings of the National Association, only Warren Spahn (356) and Kid Nichols (331) have won more games for them. No, Greg Maddux didn't, nor did Tom Glavine: Although both won over 300 games, both of their totals are noticeably split with other teams.

*

But the Braves let him go. And the Yankees, needing pitching, signed him for the 1984 season. He went 16-8, making his 5th and last All-Star Game. On July 4, at Arlington Stadium outside Dallas, he struck Larry Parrish of the Texas Rangers out, for his 3,000th career strikeout. He pitched 8 innings, with Jay Howell finishing up, and the Yankees won, 5-0.
In spite of the date posted on this photo,
the milestone was achieved on the road.

In 1985, at age 46, he went 16-12, helping to keep the Yankees in the AL Eastern Division race. On September 15, after 10 seasons with them, the Houston Astros traded Phil's brother Joe Niekro to the Yankees, and they were teammates for a few days. Joe went 2-1 for the Yankees down the stretch.

The Yankees they needed to sweep a season-ending series with the Toronto Blue Jays, at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, to set up a Playoff for the Division title. They won on Friday night, but lost on Saturday afternoon, to give the Jays the title.

In the Sunday finale, on October 6, he went the distance against the Toronto Blue Jays, gaining his 300th win. The Yankees won, 8-0, with home runs by Don Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo and Henry Cotto. He allowed only 4 hits, and became the oldest pitcher ever to throw a shutout, a record that stood until Jamie Moyer did it at 47 in 2010. Phil admitted that he did not throw a knuckleball until the last batter, Jeff Burroughs -- himself a longtime veteran, and the AL MVP in 1974.

It was the last game he pitched for the Yankees, as his 2-year contract ran out. Just before the season began, he signed with the Cleveland Indians -- not the closest team to his hometown (that would be the Pittsburgh Pirates), but a team in his home State. The Cleveland metro area still has a significant Polish community, and it really took to "Knucksie."
"Cleveland Rocks"? Cleveland knuckles.

He went 11-11 in 1986. In 1987, he was 7-11, and was traded in midseason for the Blue Jays. He made 3 starts, going 0-2, and was released. He was brought back by the Braves, and, on September 27, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he made one last start. Although he allowed 5 runs in 3 innings, he did not factor in the decision. Oddly, like his 1st appearance, his last appearance was for the Braves in a bad loss to the Giants, albeit at home this time: The Giants won, 15-6.

Phil then retired. At 48, he was the oldest regular player in major league history. This record would hold until 2007, when Julio Franco did so at 49 -- also for the Braves. His 24 seasons without appearing in a World Series is a record, breaking the 23 of Carl Yastrzemski.

He finished his career with 318 wins, more than any knuckleballer, and 274 losses. He ended up winning 121 games after his 40th birthday, more than any other pitcher. His career ERA was 3.35, and his ERA+ was 115. He had 3,342 strikeouts, more than all but 6 pitchers before him, and a WHIP of 1.268. His 5,404 1/3rd innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era.

For comparison's sake: Joe, who last appeared in an MLB game in early 1988, finished 221-204 -- giving them a combined total of 539 wins, the most of any brother combination in MLB history. His ERA was 3.59, and his ERA+ was 98. His WHIP was 1.319, and he had 1,747 strikeouts. He appeared in only 1 All-Star Game, in Seattle with the Astros in 1979.

However, in that 1979 season, Joe came in 2nd in the NL's Cy Young Award voting, behind Bruce Sutter. He finished 6th in the NL MVP voting that year, closer than Joe ever came. And, unlike Phil, Joe appeared in a World Series, finally doing so in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins, shortly before his 43rd birthday. He also appeared in the postseason with the 1972 Detroit Tigers and the 1980 and '81 Astros.

*

The Braves elected Phil to their team Hall of Fame, retired his Number 35, and dedicated a statue of him outside Fulton County Stadium. It was moved to Turner Field, and now to Truist Park. Their farm team, the Gwinnett Braves, play at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and it has a restaurant named Niekro's. It features the Knucksie Sandwich. Pig's knuckles? No, rather, it is something he was known to enjoy: Barbecued pork and cole slaw atop a corn muffin.

The brothers' alma mater, Bridgeport High School in Ohio, named its baseball field The Niekro Diamond, after both of them. They supported the school system with The Niekro Classic, a celebrity golf tournament.
From 1994 to 1997, Phil managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, a women's baseball team sponsored by Colorado-based Coors beer, which has nicknamed is Coors Light beer "the Silver Bullet." He hired Joe as a coach. In their last season, 1997, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in his 5th year of eligibility, and the Silver Bullet players accompanied him to Cooperstown for the celebrations.

Like his fellow late Hall-of-Famer, Tom Seaver, and also like Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro was married to a woman named Nancy. They had sons Philip, John and Michael, and grandchildren Chase and Emma. Joe died of a brain aneurysm in 2006, shortly before his 62nd birthday.

MLB Network ran a special, Icons Lost, honoring 6 members of the Hall of Fame who died in 2020: Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline and Joe Morgan. It aired too soon to include Phil Niekro. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and died on December 26, 2020, at his home in Flowery Branch, Georgia. He was 81 years old.

Dale Murphy, Braves legend: "Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Phil Niekro. Knucksie was one of a kind. Friend, teammate, father and husband. Our hearts go out to Nancy Niekro, the kids and grandkids. So thankful for our memories and time together. We'll miss you, Knucksie."

Tom Glavine, another Hall of Fame pitcher for the Braves: "He is, for sur,e one of the most beloved Braves of all time. There's no question about that... I've never heard anybody say they didn't like Knucksie. That says a lot. When you're an athlete or celebrity to some extent, there will inevitably be people who don't like you for whatever reason, even though they don't know you. But you never heard that about Knucksie. Everybody loved him."

John Smoltz, yet another Hall of Fame pitcher for the Braves: "Phil made you feel like you were the only Hall-of-Famer in the building. That is something that he will always be known for... the way he made you smile, the way he made you feel."

Dave Winfield, Hall-of-Famer and Yankee teammate in 1984 and '85: "You get beaten down to learn another Hall of Fame friend Phil Niekro passed away. He was kind, a gentleman, family man, master of his trade and teammate."

Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive legends in baseball history. And he was exactly the kind of man you would hope such a legend would be.


K.C. Jones, 1932-2020

It's never good to see someone die on Christmas Day. As B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell) said on M*A*S*H, people's Christmas wreaths should be green, not black.

K.C. Jones -- as far as both Wikipedia and Basketball-Reference.com know, that was his his full name, named for his father -- was born on May 25, 1932 in Taylor, Texas. When he was 9, his parents split up, and his mother took him his siblings to San Francisco, part of "The Great Migration" of black people out of the South.

His basketball teammate Bill Russell, football star Ollie Matson, and baseball stars Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell and Joe Morgan were all born in the South, but moved to the San Francisco Bay Area as boys. The family of football legend turned criminal O.J. Simpson, before he was born, also did so.

After starring in basketball and football at Commerce High School, he went to the University of San Francisco, a Catholic school, where the guard became teammates with Russell, a center out of McClymonds High School, across the Bay in Oakland.

There, they won the NCAA Tournament in 1955 and 1956, winning 47 straight games, a streak that would reach 60 straight after their graduation. (They would reach what's now known as the Final Four again in 1957.) They would also be teammates on the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Russell went straight to the NBA's Boston Celtics. Jones spent 2 years in the U.S. Army, and was then drafted by the Celtics in 1958. The Celtics had won their 1st NBA Championship in 1956-57, Russell's 1st season, but lost the Finals in 1958, due to an injury that Russell tried to play through.

With a starting lineup of Russell at center, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn as forwards, and Cousy and Sam Jones (no relation to K.C.), and with a bench led by K.C., Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff, the Celtics began the greatest run in the history of major league sports in North America. They won the next 8 NBA Championships: They beat the Minneapolis Lakers in the Finals in 1959; the St. Louis Hawks in 1960 and '61; the Los Angeles version of the Lakers in 1962, '63, '65 and '66; and the San Francisco Warriors in 1964.

By the 1961-62 season, Cousy's minutes had begun to decline, and K.C. became a starter. "The Jones Boys" backcourt featured Sam as the offensive guard, and K.C. as the defensive one. In 1965, Russell said, "K.C. Jones does not have a bagful of defensive moves. He has a whole truckload of defensive moves. He will pester a guy so much that the guy will start to look for K.C. even when he's not there."

Red Auerbach left his post as the Celtics' head coach after the 1966 title, but remained the general manager, and appointed Russell as head coach. The 1966-67 season saw the Philadelphia 76ers finally overcome the Celtics, and then beat the Warriors in the Finals.

At age 35, K.C. Jones retired as a player. He is 1 of only 8 players to win an NCAA Championship, an Olympic Gold Medal and an NBA Championship. The others are Russell, Sam Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Jerry Lucas, Quinn Buckner, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Anthony Davis.

*

K.C. immediately went into coaching, at Brandeis University outside Boston. He was the head coach there for 3 seasons, and then an assistant at Harvard University, also outside Boston, in 1970-71. He got his 1st NBA coaching job with the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, under his former Celtic teammate Sharman, and they set a North American major league sports record that still stands with a 33-game winning streak. They won 69 games, a single-season NBA record until 1996, and won the Lakers' 1st title since moving to Los Angeles.

That earned him his 1st pro head coaching job, with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA. They only went 30-54, but it was enough to get them into the Playoffs. That earned him his 1st NBA head coaching job, with the Washington Bullets. In 3 seasons, he led them to 1st, 1st and 2nd place in the NBA Central Division, and the 1975 Eastern Conference title. But they lost to the now-Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

In 1976-77, he was an assistant to former Celtic teammate Wayne Embry on the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1978, he rejoined the Celtics as an assistant coach, earning another NBA Championship ring under Bill Fitch in 1981. He was named head coach for the 1983-84 season, and won the title in his 1st season, with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge beating the Lakers.

He was a player's coach: "I prefer my players come across as geniuses. Mine is a subtle, quiet approach." On another occasion, in a similar vein, he said, "People want to see a coach who has a whip in one hand and a chair in the other. "I don't fit that mold. I prefer not to embarrass my players in front of 15,000 people just to impress the world."

He got the Celtics to the Finals again in 1985, but lost to the Lakers. He got them back in 1986, and beat the Houston Rockets.
Jones, talking to Larry Bird and Scott Wedman

Shortly after the 1986 title, K.C. appeared in a commercial for Jones Sausage, even though he had nothing to do with the company before. Also in the commercial was actress-dancer Janet Jones, then engaged to tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis, but later to call it off, and marry hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

He got them back to the Finals in 1987, but lost to the Lakers. After a 5th straight Atlantic Division title in 1988, but a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, he retired, becoming the Celtics' vice president for basketball operations.

In 1989, he joined the staff of Bernie Bickerstaff on the SuperSonics, and became their head coach in 1990. He remained head coach through 1992. He later served as an assistant to the Pistons, and back with the Celtics in the 1996-97 season. His last head coaching job was in 1997-98, with the New England Blizzard, the Hartford team in the American Basketball League, a women's league.

Overall, his coaching record was 552-306, for a .643 winning percentage. In 12 seasons as a head coach, he made the Playoffs 11 times, won 7 Division titles, made 5 NBA Finals, and won 2 NBA Championships. Between playing and coaching, he won 12 NBA titles. His uniform number was retired by USF (4) and the Celtics (25). He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1989.

After coaching the Blizzard, he remained in Connecticut, where he died yesterday, Christmas Day, December 25, 2020, at a nursing home, where he had been living with Alzheimer's disease. He was 88 years old. Obituaries made no mention of a wife or children. Tributes, however, have rolled in:

Alex English, Hall-of-Famer: "I remember playing for K.C. Jones when he assisted Don Nelson coaching with Milwaukee Bucks in 1978-79. He was such an easy soul to get along with."

Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards, formerly the Bullets; and also the NHL's Washington Capitals: "True NBA gentlemen-leader and winner passes; league and fans mourn K.C. Jones. K.C. was the Bullets coach while I was in college. I knew him more from his Boston Celtics playing and coaching career. He was a man of great grace -- and skills and talents.

Cedric Maxwell, who played on K.C.'s 1984 title-winning Celtics: "The quiet genius. #RIP my friend."

Red Auerbach died in 2006, but he said, "The biggest thing you can say about K.C. is that he's a winner."

Of that, there is no doubt.

UPDATE: With Tommy Heinsohn also having recently died, the Celtics will be wearing black bands on their left shoulder straps, reading "TOMMY / K.C." The University of San Francisco are wearing "KC 4" patches on their jerseys.

With his death, there are now: 

* 3 surviving members of the 1955 and '56 University of San Francisco National Champions: Bill Russell, Mike Farmer and Mike Preaseau.

* 5 surviving members of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team: Russell, Carl Cain, Burdie Haldorson, Ron Tomsic and Chuck Darling.

From the Celtics' title teams on which K.C. played:

* 1959, 3 players: Russell, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.

* 1960, same 3 players.

* 1961, same 3 players, plus Tom "Satch" Sanders.

* 1962, same 4 players as '61, plus Gary Phillips.

* 1963, 4 players: Cousy, Russell, Sanders and Sam Jones.

* 1964, 3 players: Russell, Sanders and Sam Jones.

* 1965, 5 players: Russell, Sanders, Sam Jones, Gerry Ward and Mel Counts.

* And 1966, 6 players: Russell, Sanders, Sam Jones, Ron Bonham, Ron Watts and Don Nelson.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Just In Case

I haven't been posting much lately. Just once in the last 10 days.

It's nothing bad, but there are complications. 

I'm in the process of moving. Not far, just across town, to a condo 2 neighborhoods away from where I grew up. 

But there isn't a lot of time to write blog posts, and there is, as yet, no wi-fi here. So my laptop and my tablet are useless. 

And it's not like I can borrow a computer at my local library, even though it's now almost within walking distance: It's closed due to COVID restrictions. And even if it was open, I just don't have the time.

So I have to do it all on my phone, which isn't easy. Tiny keys.

Anyway, I wanted to let you all know that I am, more or less, okay, on this day that my age now matches the uniform number of Bernie Williams -- or, if your favorite sport is football, Dick Butkus. 

Hopefully, during the week between Christmas and New Year's, I can straighten everything out.

Scores On This Historic Day: December 18, 1969, I Was Born

December 18, 1969: Your sometimes-humble author is born at St. Barnabas Medical Center (shown) in Livingston, Essex County, New Jersey.

It was a Thursday, so there were no pro football games played on the day, not in the NFL, and not in the AFL, either. It was baseball's off-season, so there were no games in that sport, either.

There were no games played in the American Basketball Association that day, and there was only one NBA game: The Chicago Bulls beat the Atlanta Hawks, 114-112, at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, on the Georgia Tech campus. The Hawks played at the "Thrillerdome" from their 1968 move from St. Louis until the 1972 opening of The Omni.

And there was only one NHL game played that day: The Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues played to a 3-3 tie, at the St. Louis Arena. Those same teams would oppose each other in that season's Stanley Cup Finals: On May 10, 1970, Bobby Orr scored in overtime of Game 4 to give the Bruins a sweep, and their 1st Stanley Cup in 29 years.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Happy 100th Birthday, Eddie Robinson!

Believe it or not, there are 4 men named Robinson in the Baseball Hall of Fame:

* Jackie Robinson was the man who reintegrated baseball in 1947, and became an all-time great above and beyond his pioneer status. He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to 6 Pennants (just missing 2 others) and a win in the 1955 World Series. 

* Frank Robinson remains the only man to be named the Most Valuable Player in each League, and he also became the 1st black manager in each League.

* Brooks Robinson became one of the best 3rd basemen ever, and reminded fans just how important, and how spectacular, defense can be. Together, he (white) and Frank Robinson (black) turned the Baltimore Orioles into winners of 4 Pennants and 2 World Series. 

* And Wilbert Robinson was a very good catcher who became a great manager, winning National League Pennants in 1916 and 1920. He was so admired, the team was sort-of named for him while he was its manager, from 1914 to 1931: The Brooklyn Robins. Afterward, it resumed its former name: The Dodgers. 

In comparison, the Hall has 2 Johnsons, Walter and Randy; 2 Jacksons, Travis and Reggie; 2 Gibsons, Josh and Bob; but only 1 Smith, Ozzie; and no Joneses. And 2 Wrights, the brothers Harry and George; 2 Waners, the brothers Paul and Lloyd; and 2 MacPhails, Larry and his son Lee. But it has 4 Robinsons.

*

Eddie Robinson will never be in the Hall of Fame. But he is an important figure in baseball history.

William Edward Robinson was born on December 15, 1920 in Paris, Texas. A 1st baseman who batted lefthanded and threw righthanded, he made his major league debut on September 9, 1942, with the Cleveland Indians. 

He would miss the next 3 seasons serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. In 1943, during his service, he married Elayne Elder. They had 2 children, and divorced in 1951. He later married Bette Farlow, and had 3 more children.

He returned to the major leagues in 1946, and, wearing Number 3 (which the team would later retire for an earlier star, Hall-of-Fame outfielder Earl Averill), helped the Indians win the 1948 World Series. 

After that season, he was traded to the Washington Senators, and in mid-1950 to the Chicago White Sox. He was named an All-Star in 1949, 1951, 1952 and 1953, starting at 1st base for the American League in the 1949 and 1952 All-Star Games.

He was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953, and to the Yankees in 1954, helping them win a Pennant in 1955. As a Yankee, he wore Number 36.

In 1956, they traded him back to the Athletics, who had moved to Kansas City. His last season in the majors was 1957, with the Detroit Tigers, then back with the Indians, and closing with the Baltimore Orioles. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .268 and 172 home runs.

Having played under manager Paul Richards, a fellow Texan, in Chicago and  Baltimore, he became one of Richards' Oriole coaches, and then followed him to the 1962 expansion team that would become known as the Houston Astros.

He left Richards to become the farm system director for the A's, but they were now owned by Charlie Finley, and, like so many men before him and so many of them after him, Robinson got tired of Finley's nonsense, and left.

In 1968, Richards gave Robinson another lifeline, with the Atlanta Braves. He succeeded Richards as their general manager in 1972, held the job when their Hank Aaron became the all-time home run leader in 1974, and left in 1976, growing tired of another business tycoon who had bought a baseball team and thought he knew more than "baseball lifers" like Eddie Robinson: Ted Turner.

In 1977, Eddie returned to his native North Texas, serving as GM of the Texas Rangers through 1982. His last job in baseball was as a scout for the Boston Red Sox, the only one of the 8 founding franchises of the AL for whom he hadn't played.

In 2011, at the age of 90, he published a memoir: Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball.

By the time the Indians won the Pennant in 2016, Eddie Robinson was 95, and the last living former player who had played on one of their World Series winners. They had also won in 1920, and had played in the World Series but lost in 1954, 1995 and 1997.

Having become the last living player who had played at their League Park, and had also played for them at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Fort Worth, Texas resident was invited to Progressive Field for the 2016 World Series, and attended Game 6, with the Indians looking to end their 68-year drought that night, against the Chicago Cubs. 

But the Cubs won, and also won Game 7, to end their 108-year drought. The Indians' drought is now the longest.

He is 1 of 12 living veterans of both Major League Baseball and World War II, 1 of 4 living men who played in MLB during World War II, 1 of 15 living players who played in the 1940s, 1 of 5 living former Philadelphia Athletics, 1 of 24 living former "old Washington Senators," 1 of 17 living men who played for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel; and, since succeeding Val Heim as each at Heim's death on November 21, 2019, both the earliest and the oldest living former MLB player. 

One distinction he does not have, however, is that of the earliest living World Series winner. That one belongs to Bobby Brown, the 96-year-old former 3rd baseman and retired cardiologist who is the last surviving member of the Yankees' World Series winners of 1947. He is also the last survivor of the Yankee title teams of 1949, 1950 and 1951.
Don Larsen, Bobby Brown and Eddie Robinson,
at Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, 2015.

Happy 100th Birthday, Eddie Robinson. He is a baseball lifer who has had an amazing life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Paolo Rossi, 1956-2020

Sports is a ruthless endeavor -- and not just because Babe Ruth has been dead since 1948. But it takes a special brand of ruthlessness to be a soccer player and title your autobiography I Made Brazil Cry.

Paolo Rossi was such a ruthless man.

He was born on September 23, 1956, in Prato, outside Florence, in Italy's Tuscany region. A forward, he made his professional debut in 1973, for Juventus of Turin. Due to being funded by the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat Motors, Italy's biggest employer, they are the country's most successful team, which makes them its most popular, and also its most hated. Much like the Yankees, the Lakers, Notre Dame, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. A common slogan in Italy is "Amo il calcio, quindi odio Il Juve" -- "I love football, therefore I hate Juventus."

But knee injuries kept Rossi from becoming a regular player for Juve, and he was loaned out to Lombardy team Como. In 1976, he was sold outright to Vicenza, the largest team in Veneto and thus the closest major team to Venice. There, he blossomed, helping them win Serie B in 1977, gaining them promotion to Serie A, Italy's highest league.

In 1977-78, he led Serie A in scoring with 24 goals, and helped Vicenza to nearly pull off a miracle, finishing 2nd in their 1st season in the league. That got the attention of the Italian national team, and he was selected for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

It all fell apart in 1979, as Vicenza was relegated. He was sold to Perugia, in Umbria. He did well for them, but 1980 was the year of the Totonero match-fixing scandal. Two of Italy's biggest teams, A.C. Milan and Rome team Lazio, were punished by relegation to Serie B. Some others, including Rossi's Perugia, were docked 5 points. Rossi was punished more than any individual player, suspended for 3 seasons.

He always insisted he was innocent, but he missed his age 23 and 24 seasons. His suspension was lifted after the 2nd season. Juventus, known for their corruption (they were not charged in Totonero, but would be relegated and stripped of 2 titles in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal), didn't care that people still thought Rossi was guilty, and scooped him up for the 1981-82 season.

He helped them win the League in 1982, and he was once again selected for the national team. Despite there being no blue in Italy's national flag, their national team wears blue (this is also true for Japan), and are known as Gli Azzurri (The Blues). Italy's sporting press is notorious for making bigger deals out of things than they should -- for a big team like Juve, the Milan teams (A.C. Milan and Internazionale) or the Rome teams (Roma and Lazio), a 3-game winless streak is a "crisis" and talk that the manager should be fired begins. So there was some fuss about Rossi being chosen for the World Cup.

*

The tournament was held in Spain, and 2 teams seemed to be the popular favorites, Brazil and France. Brazil, in particular, because, for the 1st time since their 1970 win, they seemed to have a team that was not only greatly talented, but stylish. Like most Brazil teams, they were led by men using single names, and the names still echo through the history of the game: Sócrates, Zico, Falcão, Éder. (Some of these names had been used for popular players before, and would again.) And one man who used 2 names, serving as a nickname: Roberto Dinamite.

Brazil had beaten Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final, and the contrast between the national teams' reputations couldn't have been more stark: While they had a high-scoring team in 1970, Italy's best club teams had been notable for defense, with a style known as catenaccio, or "padlock."

Gianni Brera, the legendary writer for La Gazzetta dello Sport -- effectively, Italy's Grantland Rice -- had said that the perfect soccer game would end 0-0. Most Americans would find this boring, but Italian fans of the 1960s and '70s tended to agree with him.

Not surprisingly, Juventus were known for a strong defense, and had 6 players on Italy's team for the 1982 World Cup: Rossi, midfielder Marco Tardelli, goalkeeper Dino Zoff, and 3 defenders: Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea.

Fiorentina, of Florence, had 5: Backup goalkeeper Giovanni Galli, defender Pietro Vierchowod, midfielder Giancarlo Antognoni, and forwards Daniele Massaro and Francesco Graziani. Inter Milan had 5: Backup goalkeeper Ivano Bordon, defender Giuseppe Bergomi, midfielders Giampiero Marini and Gabriele Oriali, and forward Alessandro Altobelli.

A.C. Milan had 2 players, both defenders: Franco Baresi and Fulvio Collovati. And 1 player each came from 4 other clubs: Forward Franco Selvaggi from Cagliari on Sardinia, midfielder Bruno Conti from A.S. Roma, midfielder Giuseppe Dossena from Turin team Torino, and midfielder Franco Causio from Udinese. The manager was Enzo Bearzot.

Italy excited no one in the First Group Stage, gaining 3 draws, all in the northwestern Spanish city of Vido: 0-0 with Poland, 1-1 with Peru, and 1-1 with Cameroon. The Italian media ripped their own boys, singling Rossi out, with one writer calling him "a ghost aimlessly wandering over the field." But it was enough to finish 2nd to Poland in Group 1, and advance to the Second Group Stage.

They were put in Group C, with Brazil and Argentina. The latter were not only the defending champions, but had added a new star, Diego Maradona. Italy seemed like lambs being led to the slaughter. In 2007, with a quarter-century of hindsight, British newspaper The Guardian called this "the deadliest-ever Group of Death in World Cup history."

All the games in this Group were played at Estadi de Sarrià, home of RCD Espanyol in Barcelona. On June 29, Italy stunned Argentina -- a country which, despite having Spanish as its official language, has Italians as their largest ethnic group -- with 2nd-half goals by Tardelli and Cabrini within 10 minutes. They pulled one back, but it wasn't enough, as Gentile and Scirea marked Maradona out of the action, and Italy were 2-1 winners.

On July 2, Brazil beat Argentina, their arch-rivals, 3-1 in a masterclass of what they called, in Portuguese, O Jogo Bonito: The Beautiful Game. Argentina were out, and the July 5 match between Brazil and Italy would decide one of the teams for the Semifinal.

Bearzot decided that keeping Zico from attacking was the answer. He sent Gentile to mark Zico, and it worked, but at a price: Gentile was called for a foul, and granted a yellow card. Due to accumulation of cards, he would be suspended for the Semifinal, should Italy qualify.

Rossi scored only 5 minutes in, with a header off a Cabrini cross. Sócrates answered in the 12th minute. In the 25th, Rossi stepped in front of Júnior, intercepted a pass from Cerezo, and scored a 2nd goal. It was 2-1 Italy at the half. Falcão tied it in the 68th. Had that 2-2 score held, Brazil would have advanced to the Semifinal on goal difference.

But in the 74th, Italy had a corner kick. Brazil did a poor job of clearing it. Rossi took the ball at the six-yard line, and drilled a shot to complete a hat trick. Antognoni seemed to score in the 86th, but it was disallowed for offside -- incorrectly, as an instant replay later showed. In stoppage time, Oscar nearly equalized for Brazil, but Zoff made an amazing save, clinching the 3-2 win for Italy.

Brazilian fans could be seen crying in the stands. Not since the Maracanazo of the 1950 Final, which they lost on home soil to Uruguay, had their team sustained such a defeat. This one would also be named after the stadium where it was played: A tragédia do Sarrià. And Rossi, approached after the tournament to write a book, titled it Ho fatto piangere il Brasile: "I Made Brazil Cry."

It has been suggested that this loss was the end of O Jogo Bonito for Brazil: The attacking philosophy that had served them so well was scrapped for a defense-first approach. It paid off in 1994, when they won the World Cup -- beating Italy in the Final, on penalties after 120 minutes of goalless soccer. But the country practically revolted against this approach: Never was a team that won the World Cup less loved in its homeland. So they went back to the old approach, led by Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, reaching the Final in 1998 and winning it all in 2002.

But the tournament was not over. On July 8, at the Camp Nou, the already-storied home ground of FC Barcelona, Italy faced Poland in the Semifinal. Rossi was the star again, scoring in the 22nd and the 73rd minute, leading Italy to a 2-0 win. The Final would be on July 11, at the home of Real Madrid, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. It would be against West Germany, which shocked France in what was widely seen as a dirty match.

In the World Cup, matches are usually refereed by a man from neither team's home continent, in the hopes of avoiding any bias. The referee for this match was Arnaldo Cézar Coelho -- from Brazil. Despite Rossi and his teammates having "made Brazil cry," in the end, he was not accused of showing any bias against Italy, and is generally considered one of the best referees in the sport's history.

The 1st half was scoreless. Italy were awarded a penalty, but Cabrini missed it. In the 57th minute, Rossi struck again, heading in a cross from Gentile. Tardelli scored in the 69th, and later said that he saw his life flashing before his eyes thereafter. Altobelli added a goal in the 81st. Paul Breitner scored for West Germany in the 83rd, but it was too little, too late. Italy won, 3-1.

Having previously won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938, this was their 3rd, tying Brazil for the most. Through 2018, the count is Brazil 5, Italy 4, Germany 4 (but only 1 since reunification with East Germany), France 2, Argentina 2, Uruguay 2, Spain 1, England 1.

Rossi was awarded the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament, and, in The Guardian, Peter Mason wrote that, for Italy, the World Cup "was a cathartic moment for the nation, which had been subject to significant social and political unrest for a number of years and, despite being regarded as one of the world's premier footballing nations, had not won a World Cup since 1938... With the victory came an incalculable lift to the nation’s spirits, and Rossi was at the centre of the celebrations."

Rossi became an icon wherever veins carried Italian blood. There was a pizzeria in my neighborhood. Before the tournament, all the posters were of the Yankees, Frank Sinatra (including posters from his movies), and the Godfather films. After it, the posters were of the Azzurri, and of Rossi in particular.

At his 25th birthday, he was a genius with a cloud over his head. At his 26th, he was an all-time legend.

*

How do you follow up a World Cup win? By doing the best you can. In 1983, Juventus finished 2nd, but won the Coppa Italia (Italy's version of the FA Cup), and reached the Final of the European Cup (the tournament now named the UEFA Champions League), losing to German team Hamburger SV. In 1984, Juve won Serie A and the European Cup Winners' Cup (a tournament phased out in 1999).
In 1985, they won the European Cup for the 1st time, defeating Liverpool at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, despite an accident before the game that led to the deaths of 39 people. The incident became known as the Heysel Disaster, and, for UEFA's decision to let the game go forward, it became known as the Cup of Blood.

Before the next season, Rossi was sold to A.C. Milan. He was selected for the 1986 World Cup, but had to miss it due to injury. He played 1 more season, with Hellas Verona, and retired at 31.

He went into the real estate business, and served as a studio pundit, including for Italy's top sports network, RAI Sport. He married twice, and had 3 children.
But he was a smoker, and today, December 9, 2020, he died of lung cancer, at the age of 64.

Now, Italy cries. But because he had once made Brazil, then Poland, then Germany cry, Paolo Rossi made Italians -- and many neutrals -- smile.