My Sportsman Choice: The Montgomery Expos
Posted: Monday November 29, 2004 11:49AM; Updated: Monday November 29, 2004 12:27PM
Tom Verducci, who wrote SI's Sportsmen of the Year story on the Boston Red Sox, says there is another baseball team that deserved consideration for the magazine's highest honor.
Professional sports, given the blind admiration we give their participants, are guaranteed to disappoint. The athletes cannot be what many people -- especially the foolish face painters and the adults who wear jerseys with names on the back of people they've never met -- want them to be. And so we are surprised and even angered when people like Jose Guillen, Rafael Furcal and Jamal Lewis remind us of their humanity. As if we knew them. Your guess is as good as mine if Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong are clean.
I come to sport for the competition and the striving for excellence, not the athlete/celebrity/endorser/faux friend. And this year I found no better display of that side of sportsmanship than the Montgomery Expos. Not the Montreal Expos, may they rest in peace. The Montgomery Expos of the Montgomery (N.J.) Baseball League, a member of Cal Ripken Baseball. These 8- and 9-year-olds were my team, my joy, my Sportsmen ... Sportskids of the Year.
As manager of the team, I chose our name, an homage to a once-proud franchise killed by the 1994-95 players' strike. It was also my way of not taking ourselves too seriously, of setting a playful tone for the season. The kids played with enthusiasm and they played with joy, at least when somebody wasn't in the Port-a-John when it was their turn at bat or eating nachos on the bench and all the silly things kids should do. We made sure to end every practice with an intrasquad scrimmage that was as close to a pickup sandlot game as possible. Just for the fun of it. And when the minivans showed up to take them home they would ask their moms if they could stay a little longer. The Expos finished the regular season in fourth place, then swept three playoff games to the championship, winning each game by coming from behind. It was totally unexpected to me. They had learned so much about baseball and about testing their abilities.
The trophies were nice and the sense of accomplishment was nice. But what I'll remember most was what happened after the trophies were handed out and the cupcakes were eaten and the umpires went home. One of my players told me he had been working on his pitching at home. ``Can I pitch to you?'' he said. I grabbed a glove, he ran to the mound, and sure enough, he flipped a good number of strikes to me.
When we were done, my son, Ben, came up to me and said, ``Dad, can we have a catch?'' It was a warm late June evening, the golden sun still hanging on in what photographers call the magic hour. We played catch in the outfield. The end to a season was not the end of our love for baseball. They kids wanted to play on.
In their bright eyes and their eagerness and their honest effort I found what professional sports cannot offer. Here you cannot possibly be disappointed. Here you get much more than you can ever expect.