Friday January 25, 2013

Telly Halkias

I confess: back when Lance Armstrong was banging out Tour de France titles like popcorn at the movies - all while beating cancer and raising hundreds of millions to fight it - I was on his red-white-and-blue bandwagon, pumping my patriotic fist with every win.

While not so naïve as to have believed Lance never juiced up with steroids, these days I’m feeling a bit more dejected, duped into yet another sporting hero-worship. My approval and fervor went to a luminary whose win-at-all-costs hubris let down an entire generation of fans, and reminded us of our own flaws in no uncertain terms.

In the midst of this disenchantment - climaxing in the cliché of an Oprah exclusive - we almost discounted the passing of a genuine human paradigm who just happened to be a sports star. Last week, St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame outfielder Stan "The Man" Musial died at 92.

There might not have been a time in recent American pop culture where two societal icons had contrasting grips on our consciousness. On national TV, one admitted he cheated in his sport and lied about it, all while not looking remorseful. The other bowed out quietly, in much the same way he was overshadowed by other celebrities his entire life.

Musial, of course, always had a few things going against him. He played far from the bright lights of New York, where his era’s stars were minted. Even out in the Midwest, the glamor teams and press attention were up north in Chicago. When Musial broke into the major leagues during the 1941 season, St. Louis was akin to Fort Apache, an outpost on the hardball frontier.

But more importantly, the 24-time All-Star was understated, polite, humble and not keen on the spotlight though he could have commanded it.

The two men’s stats and accomplishments have been bandied about plenty, so there’s no reason to regurgitate them here. What’s telling, however, is that tributes to Musial in the national press were similar in several ways. First, as eye-popping as Stan The Man’s career stats are when compared to other all-time baseball greats, he was more so recognized as a magnificent human being off the field. There’s no higher complement. Next, almost all these tributes emphasized how overlooked Musial remained to this day: acknowledged as a great, but never harangued into the ticker-tape paeans of sports journalists. Finally, quite a few Musial commemorations weren’t headlines. Instead, they pushed down under the fold in print, and away from the top hotlink online - often bested by a recent sensational athlete scandal.

The late literary critic Paul Fussell used to revel in irony as life’s great theme; he would have loved how this played out. The contrast in media treatment between Musial and Armstrong gets to the heart of how much the latter brought us down. Consequently, he personified our "me-first" generation, where so much self-worth is tied to clicking a mouse, and kitschy signals emanating from smartphones.

Armstrong hogged the arena, outing himself with no contrition, and coming across as cold-blooded as a lizard. Meanwhile, Stan The Man’s final salutes were muted by the standards of celebrity death, especially given the ample evidence suggesting Musial is one of the top 10 baseball players of all time.

His gaudy career statistics bear that out. What no numbers could tell, however, was the story of a star that wanted little attention, was loyal to a fault, and who, 50 years after hanging up his spikes, remained as beloved to his sport as he was in 1963, when he stood in the batter’s box one last time.

Memo to Lance: Americans are the most forgiving people on Earth, but you’ve got to earn back their trust. However, forget about ever being The Man; he’s come and gone.

Fittingly, we barely noticed. 

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com.