Column as I see ’em...
Iceland is not a sports hotbed — I mean, c’mon, it’s Iceland — and if asked to identify the country’s most accomplished sportsman, I’d be challenged to name anybody but the late chess wizard Bobby Fischer, an American emigre who relocated there to escape his legal troubles in the U.S.
But Iceland’s astonishing advancement to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 is the stuff of a movie that inevitably will be made. A soccer team representing a nation with 330,000 residents — less than half the population of Pierce County — beating England, the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport? This is a script that could be written by a trained monkey.
English manager Roy Hodgson was so humiliated by his team’s 2-1 defeat, he resigned on the spot, though it’s reasonable to assume he had a premonition. Hodgson’s postmatch remarks were read from a prepared statement. Eerie.
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Iceland being Iceland, the adventure just gets cooler and cooler as the national team awaits its Sunday match against France. For instance, we’ve learned that Iceland’s assistant manager, Heimer Hallgrimsson — he’ll take over all coaching duties after the tournament — is a dentist whose idea of a full-time practice is, well, dentistry.
Among the fans who witnessed last week’s epic upset in France were 27,000 Icelanders, about eight percent of the country’s population.
“It’s like having your family at the game,” defender Kari Arnason told reporters. “I know probably 50 percent of the crowd — or at least recognize them!”
▪ Argentina’s recent drubbing of the Yanks in the Copa America Centenario struck many as a wake-up call that prompts a question: Despite youth participation at an all-time high, why does advancement in international tournaments remain a hurdle the American men’s team can’t seem to clear?
Then again, if you suspect soccer is running in place in the U.S., consider England’s plight: Since its 1966 victory over West Germany for the World Cup title, the Three Lions have only won six knockout games in major international tournaments, the World Cup or the European Championships.
Hours before that 1966 championship match, one of the great lead sentences of a sports article was written by the London Daily Mail’s Vincent Mulchrone:
“If the Germans beat us at our national game today, we can always console ourselves with the fact that we twice have beaten them at theirs.”
▪ The 13-year major league baseball career of Jim Hickman, who died last Saturday at 79, always fascinated me. Between his 1962 rookie season and 1969, Hickman was a fourth outfielder type, a right-handed hitter typically benched against the tougher right-handed pitchers. Between 1971 and 1974, same deal: A journeyman with occasional power but little else to distinguish him from a replacement-level player.
And yet for six months with the 1970 Cubs, Hickman put it all together, hitting .315 with 32 homers and 115 runs batted in. He finished ninth in the MVP vote and got invited to his only All-Star Game. Although Hickman didn’t start the contest at Cincinnati, he had a key role in what’s recalled as the most memorable of All-Star Game moments.
In the 12th inning of a 4-4 tie, with Pete Rose on second and two out, Hickman lined a single to center field. Third base coach Leo Durocher waved Rose home, only to realize Amos Otis had fired a perfect dart to catcher Ray Fosse — Rose’s cue to collide with Fosse in the style of a linebacker making an open-field tackle.
Rose dislodged the ball and was ruled safe, giving the NL a 5-4 victory. But the decision to barrel into the catcher — foreshadowing Rose’s troubles in and out of baseball — came at a steep price: It left the 22-year old Fosse with a shoulder fracture that wasn’t diagnosed until the following season. By playing through the injury, Fosse altered his swing and never fulfilled his considerable potential.
As for Hickman, he got the most of what nature gave him. He wasn’t fast and had no defensive value. For 12 years, he was just another face on a Topps chewing-gum card. But for one season — specifically, one at-bat in a game that didn’t count — his swing triggered All-Star Game history.
▪ Ben Reiter’s beautifully written story about Ken Griffey Jr.’s life after baseball, published in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, includes a hilarious anecdote regarded the hazing Alex Rodriguez took as a Mariners rookie from Griffey and Jay Buhner. (They convinced him he was a kind of human version of a thoroughbred stallion.) I find most hazing to be stupid — requiring rookies to tote pink backpacks is not, nor never will be, funny — but I guess there are exceptions to everything.
Besides, consider the victim.
▪ Speaking of Rodriguez: Yankee Stadium fans booed the 40-year old designated hitter Tuesday night, when he went 0 for 5. His Wins Above Replacement rating for 2016 has dipped below 0 — in other words, he’s considered less useful than a typical minor-league call up — but the real source of the “Bronx Cheers” is the fact he’s guaranteed $21 million this season and $21 million next season.
▪ A more inspiring chapter in the life of an aging athlete far past his prime was played out Wednesday during USA Swimming’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, where Michael Phelps qualified for his fifth Summer Games. Phelps is 31, ancient in a sport dominated by teenagers, but maturity has its advantages. A DUI arrest found him undergoing the rehab that both changed his life and sharpened his focus toward a comeback.
Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time — 22 medals, 18 of them gold — but he’s as proud of his first-place finish Wednesday in the 200-meter butterfly, which qualified him for Rio de Janeiro, as any other accomplishment.
Phelps figures to compete in a number of events at Rio, but his most viable contribution might be his status as the unsinkable legend who escaped what he has called the “really dark place” celebrity took him.
“The staunch leadership he’s been demonstrating the last year or so, the maturity he’s shown, people are really going to rally behind him,” David Marsh, the U.S. women’s swim team coach, told USA Today.
Phelps is father of a 3-month-old son closer to the age of the swimmer’s Olympic debut — he was 15 at the Sydney Games in 2000 — than Phelps is today.
I will be rooting for Michael Phelps to collect another medal in Rio, assuming my voice has recovered from all the rooting I’m planning to do for Iceland.