Unfortunately, the professional side of his life has recently been "catastrophic." It was only two years ago that Knight hit .304, fifth-best in the National League. Not long ago, he looked at the batting averages in the Sunday paper, and his name was at the bottom of all the hitters. He covered his eyes in embarrassment. But however disappointed he may be at his play, Knight is utterly secure. "If I don't start hitting, I can always get a job as a caddie," he says with a laugh. He was never a great player, and the game never came easy for him, so he doesn't even think of his wife in terms of being just another athlete in the house. To him, Nancy is the equivalent of Dwight Gooden or Darryl Strawberry, teammates who possess natural talents Knight cannot even comprehend having himself. So there is no competition with his wife. "The only problem with Nancy is she's totally unselfish when it comes to the people she loves," he says. "But she's all I want, and I know what she needs to be happy, and that's easy now, because she wants to be the best again. Nancy's come full circle."
Lopez says: "Maybe I'm playing so well again just because I'm happy. More than anything else, it's probably because now I have peace of mind, so I can just go off and play golf."
She tucks her glove in the belt of her shorts. She steps before the putt, feet close together at first, then spreads them apart a bit. She strokes the ball, and when it pops in, 35 feet away, for an eagle, she permits herself a shy smile, a self-conscious wave and a tin of her visor, not unlike a baseball player. And while she doesn't win this time at Hershey either, it doesn't matter to me. I know now why I wanted so much to come back and see her again. Back then, we had all found Nancy Lopez. I wanted to return when she had found herself.
When I saw Chris McCarron not long ago after more than a decade, I was winding down the road from his handsome hilltop house—in an area of Glendale, Calif. where all the streets have Irish names and all the garages have German cars—when it occurred to me that this young jockey, who had just turned 30, must surely represent, as much as any athlete in America, the sportsman at his fullest and neatest. McCarron is very near the height of his powers, among the elite of his profession in all the world, and yet there are still furlongs to go and challenges to meet.
He rides in a distinctive fashion, "acey-deucey" in racetrack parlance, meaning he tucks his right leg higher up in the irons on that side. In a way, McCarron is a man of uneven balance himself. The pride and assurance he displays are cut with becoming modesty and containment, and the achievement he has gained is pretty much limited to the knowledge of racetrack customers, citizens who are generally capable of communicating only in fractions and epithets. But if McCarron's face rarely graces the 11 o'clock sports report, and endorsement agents never drive up his hill, he does play golf to a 13, skis proficiently, has good season seats to the Kings' hockey games, drives his daughters to school mornings and sees his life laid out in decades. He is happily married to a pretty blonde who understands the intricacies and jeopardies of his work. He is healthy, wealthy and wise. On top of all this, he doesn't have a weight problem and can make '14.
The years have been very good to the boy I met as Chrissie.
That was at Laurel Racetrack, in Maryland during the winter of '74. As a 19-year-old apprentice, only a couple of years removed from the first day he ever sat a horse ("terrified," he says now), McCarron had just set the record for winners in a calendar year—546—which stills stands. Perhaps because, like all jocks, he is short, and because his curly, rose-petal locks framed the face of an Irish chimney sweep, I remember how surprised I was at his maturity, at the ease with which he carried himself. Absolutely to the manner born.
Since then, while he has been blessed with success, his achievements have been so measured that it's impossible not to conclude that McCarron is one of those athletes who has instinctively rated himself as well as ever he did a mount.
For example, while he set the record in '74, and it was fairly earned, he scored almost all his victories at the Maryland tracks, where the competition is a cut below that in New York and Los Angeles. He patiently waited another three years before he moved his tack to the big time, arriving in L.A. on his 23rd birthday, March 27, 1978. "I knew well enough by then," he says, "that I had a God-given talent to make horses run, but"—and he shrugs—"I could always go back to Maryland." In fact, he was an instant success in the big time, and by 1980 had won the Eclipse Award as the nation's finest jockey. For three of the last four years, Seagrams, which presents an award in several sports based on a computerized analysis of performance, has cited McCarron as the best. Yet he has never received much publicity, never had a Derby winner, never been indelibly linked with a glamorous horse (he was John Henry's rider before that horse's recent retirement, but he was only the last in a long line to guide the great gelding) and he still stands utterly in awe of a more renowned rival, Laffit Pincay Jr. For that matter, when we met recently, nothing delighted McCarron, the Boston boy, more than the knowledge that he would be included in the same pages with Bobby Orr, whom he unabashedly refers to as "my hero."