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A Sports Reporter's Notebook

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Bernard, the Braves
and the bottle

Methinks a double standard exists in the Atlanta Braves front office.

Six weeks after the Bravos traded star reliever John Rocker for a Tommie Aaron baseball card and some stale Dubble Bubble because of his unfailing effort to remove his foot from his mouth, outfielder Bernard Gilkey was arrested last week as the team deplaned in St. Louis.

Gilkey, it seems, recently beat feet out of St. Louis - his hometown - without resolving the apparently inconsequential matter of a drunk driving bust.

Gilkey's third drunk driving arrest in Missouri.

Gilkey's third drunk driving arrest in Missouri in seven months.

So, like any caring employer, mindful of the general well-being of its workers - not to mention the well-being of yet another poor, misunderstood multimillionaire - the Braves ponied up the bail money in a flash and - Presto! - Bernard was once again immediately available to pinch hit or sub in the Braves outfield.

What's wrong with this picture?

From all appearances Bernard was welcomed back into the Braves' fold with open arms. After all, Gilkey wasn't being openly disrespectful of millions of New Yorkers as was the young and seemingly small minded Mr. Rocker, who was - in the words of one Braves teammate - "a cancer in the locker room."

Rocker repeatedly gave the world in general what he later termed "inaccurate" glimpses of his ignorance and lack of common sense when he heaped insults upon vast segments of the American populace, including a vast array of minorities, throwing in welfare mothers and homosexuals for good measure. For whatever reason Rocker seemed oblivious to the turmoil and rancor his intemperate comments engendered.

Even though it appeared Rocker had weathered repeated attempts to wedge both feet in his own mouth simultaneously, Atlanta sent him off packing to Cleveland for two journeymen relief pitchers, both of whom are under contract only through the current season. To add insult to injury, Braves management actually had the gall to tell both the fans and the media that it was a deal made in heaven.

Say, what?

Rocker had rung up 19 saves at the time of the trade, even though he'd had a couple of downright ugly back-to-back outings just prior to the fire sale.

Since Rocker's trade Braves relievers have converted less than 50 percent of save opportunities, most recently - at this writing - Friday night when Atlanta's relievers failed to hold a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 10th inning in Milwaukee. After the Brewers tied the game in the 10th, they beat the Braves by pushing a third run across the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning.

What brought it all home to me was listening to the comments of John Kincaid, an announcer on Radio 680, "The Fan," who lambasted the Braves for their reaction to Gilkey's "predicament," if you will. It seems that Kincaid's best friend was killed by a drunk driver.

In 20 years of news and sports reporting I can't recall a single instance when I've reported on a drunk driver killing themselves. It's always someone else.

Here's another one for you: Gilkey was charged with drunk driving in 1998 while he was at spring training with the New York Mets. Apparently he hasn't learned anything, for here's what he had to say after that imbroglio:

"I don't think I was inflicting any danger on myself or others on the road. I was feeling fine. I had a couple of beers."

OK, Bernard, then I guess the police fabricated their observations of you after the arrest, huh? According to the police report, you swayed from side to side during sobriety tests and, when told to close your eyes and bring your outstretched finger to his nose, instead hit your mouth.

Not exactly the razor sharp reflexes expected of a professional athlete.

There may or may not be more drunk driving arrests out there. Only Gilkey's criminal attorney and Gilkey know for sure.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not acting as an apologist for John Rocker. His antics and bigoted comments are much more appropriate in another entirely different setting ... say, the Spanish Inquisition.

But to watch the Braves circle the wagons around Gilkey considering his situation is beyond comprehension. In fact, it's downright ludicrous. What blows my mind even more however is the fact that Gilkey is apparently still driving.

The man has been arrested four times for driving while intoxicated, yet not only is he still afforded the opportunity to make obscene amounts of money by being a major league baseball player, but he's still cruising around out there somewhere.

When is someone - anyone - going to step up to the plate and let Gilkey know that drunk driving is not acceptable in society, even for a professional athlete? What is it going to take - the death of another innocent?

No matter what excesses we grant our professional athletes in America - be it murder, mayhem, rape, drugs, assaults, drunk driving or just plain and simple bad behavior - we've got to draw the line somewhere.

Because I don't want my son and daughter to grow up thinking that just because they have some God-given talent for athletics they are automatically excused from living upright, moral and sociable lives.

An inglorious end
to a noble career

Unconscionable \ un*con*scio*na*ble \ adj (ca. 1598) 1. not guided or controlled by conscience: 2. excessive, unreasonable.

Unconscionable is a word I don't often use, although in sports it generally comes to mind while perusing the antics, misdeeds - indeed, even the crimes - of overgrown juveniles disguised as professional athletes.

Unless one has spent the last 20 years in suspended animation one can't help but note the abhorrent amount of slack we grant gifted athletes in America. We have athletes who repeatedly defy drug policies - and then repeatedly evade the consequences (a la Darryl Strawberry); athletes who commit despicable crimes (a la Rae Carruth); athletes who assault their coaches (a la Latrell Spreewell); athletes who make a habit of drunk driving (a la Bernard Gilkey), and athletes who take sexual liberties with unwilling women (a la Mike Tyson), just to name a few.

To compound matters we have teams - not to mention players' unions - that bestow executive clemency to these poor misunderstood pros who obviously just need somebody to lean on.

Rarely does one encounter the athlete who embodies everything I want my kids to embrace: Faith, family, honesty, integrity, ethics, loyalty, all things true and pure.

One such athlete hails from this very city - Jessie Tuggle.

The Tuggle saga is a Cinderella story if there ever was one. From an early role as an understudy on the Griffin High football team Tuggle won a starting spot as an end on both sides of the ball. Yet despite his prowess on the football field, Jessie didn't possess the physical attributes that translated into queries from colleges, large or small.

Tuggle was a walk-on at Valdosta State, a Division II football power. By the time he left the school he'd established an all-time record for most tackles. Years later - as a tribute to his work ethic - Valdosta named its new conditioning facility after Jessie, who'd switched to linebacker there.

True to form Tuggle didn't field any invitations from the National Football League once his college playing days were done. Also, true to form, Tuggle parlayed a tryout with the Falcons into a pro football career, compliments of a college coach. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In a superb, 14-year career Tuggle made the Pro Bowl five times, served as Atlanta's defensive captain, and - more importantly - set an example as a family man, a Christian and as an exemplary, all-round human being far beyond the realm of sports. Until last week Tuggle was the NFL's active player with the most tackles, starting more games than any other Falcon in franchise history.

But at age 36 Jessie had lost a step or two and had suffered his first major injury halfway through the 2000 season. Then he got hurt again during training camp in late July.

And sometime early on Monday, Aug. 27, a reporter strolled into the Falcon's locker room only to find Tuggle's locker empty, his name plate gone.

That was the stark way the team acknowledged that they'd ask Jessie to retire - or else.

Or else get cut by the team he'd labored for, lo, all these many years.

Initially, the Falcons simply told the media that Tuggle "wasn't cut." One teammate told a reporter that he thought Tuggle was retiring. Nobody knew nothin' - and the coaching staff was unavailable, busy conducting a practice.

Then, bit by bit, the real story emerged.

Tuggle was old. Tuggle had a propensity for injuries. Tuggle was slow. Suddenly Tuggle was a liability.

But - never fear - the Falcons would reward Jessie for his years of faithful service with a non-playing job.

Yeah, right.

The Falcons were sandbagging and, sad to say, I was one of those reporters who got sandbagged. And if it's one thing I resent it's getting sandbagged, misled, lied to - however you want to put it. What club officials weren't saying spoke volumes more than what they were saying.

The club's orchestration of the entire fiasco wasn't simply a matter of badly wrought spin control, but more so a matter of mindless, heartless and utterly tactless personnel administration.

Indeed it would have been more direct to simply call the team together and announce, "All of you football players take three steps forward. Uh, not so fast, Jessie."

After Dan Reeves blind sided Tuggle on Aug. 26, telling him that his Falcon playing days were over, the club played dumb, acting surprised when he cleaned out his locker and had his nameplate removed.

It's almost as if the Falcons' brain trust - make that brainless trust - put their collective heads together and mused, "How can we best publicly humiliate one of our most popular and loyal players, thus robbing him of every shred of dignity, self respect and pride?"

Tuggle's teammates didn't even know the Falcons were holding a press conference Aug. 28 so Jessie could tearfully announce his short notice retirement from pro football.

Ever the trooper 'til the end, Jessie refused to say one negative word about the team that had just ripped his heart out, then ran it over with a golf cart.

As suspected, the club had nothing definitive in mind for Tuggle aside from having him turn in jersey No. 58.

But in the end Jessie was loyal to the Falcons. Obviously that loyalty was strictly one-way.

Shame isn't a strong enough word. Indeed, disgust is probably more apt.

But, unconscionable?

No question.

Priorities: First
things first

In the overall scheme of life, sports isn't all that important.

Laid alongside a tragedy such as this week's terrorist attacks, athletics pale in comparison.

That's why I was pleased to hear that the National Football League, the Southeastern Conference and the Georgia High School Association all decided to forego football this weekend.

I find it difficult to believe that even the players and coaches could have taken the playing fields with much heart or determination. Not this weekend.

Not when you match it up to the gauntlet America must pick up or risk perishing if it fails.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred 11 years before I was born but I distinctly remember the day John Kennedy was assassinated. And the day his brother, Bobby, was murdered. And the day Martin Luther King was gunned down, all despicable and cowardly acts of shadow figures who didn't possess the intestinal fortitude to face their prey eye-to-eye, or to give them the opportunity to defend themselves.

That's the difference between terrorist acts and a revolution.

Sixty years ago the United States was attacked by a foreign power but the attack was an open assault on our military.

Tuesday the American people sustained an attack, but a furtive, cowardly attack essentially upon our civilian population.

There's a big difference there, too.

It's a stretch even to try and compare one with the other.

And I believe with all my heart that to proceed with business as usual is an affront to the memory of those who died, as well as an affront to those who lost loved ones at the hands of these ... these ... criminals.

Personally speaking, my lone regret - aside from the horrendous loss of life at the hands of these cretins - is the fact I was forced out of the military 20 months ago because of a heart condition. My heart now goes out to all those grieving their losses and those in uniform preparing to right these outrageous crimes.

I walked into the newspaper offices Tuesday morning completely oblivious to what had just transpired in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania. One of the things I'd hoped to complete this week was a positive column about some of the athletes I'd met since coming to Griffin. I felt two negative columns to kick off my tenure here were sufficient and it was time to write something positive.

Unfortunately, the events of this week overtook my intentions. However, this column - while perhaps negative in tone - will positively send a message to those who are stupid enough to believe these attacks will bring America to its knees.

You're wrong. Very wrong.

Just as Japan made a grievous error in estimating our resolve, you have, too.

In fact, you have sounded the death knell for terrorism around the world.

Make no mistake, as diverse as we are, and as divisive as we may appear, we are still the United States of America, and you have incurred our wrath.

As Japanese naval commander Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto predicted in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor - which he opposed - "We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve."

We will exact a just retribution, and it will be a terrible one because you attacked innocents in secret.

Don't doubt us. You can gauge our resolve by learning how the passengers of United Flight 93 fought back, thwarting your plan to kill other innocents, although they laid down their own lives in the process.

A great Philosopher once said, "Greater loves has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends."

Take heed.

Ode to Earnhardt

I've never been much of a stock car racing fan, nor a fan of Dale Earnhardt.

In fact, truth to tell, I've often resented the man, particularly since coming to Florida three years ago last week.

Although a native Bostonian who has likewise survived driving the streets of New York City at times, I'm appalled at the way people drive here in the Sunshine State. Within three months of relocating to Florida our two late model cars were hulks rusting in Central Florida junkyards. Neither accident was our fault.

Therefore, I must confess that I'd get peeved at drivers with vehicles all duded up with Earnhardt pennants, bumper stickers, decals, pictures and sundry other paraphernalia who persisted in driving as Dale himself drove during a NASCAR race.

Drivers traversing public streets should realize they can't -- or shouldn't -- drive the way Dale drove during competition.

That said, I must admit that I was absolutely stunned when I heard the news that Dale had driven his final race this past Sunday in the Daytona 500.

Ironically the first Daytona 500 I was here in Florida for was the one that Dale won - the victory racing pundits called the capstone of a spectacular career.

With that victory, Dale Earnhardt seemingly had nothing further to prove. He was recognized as the greatest stock car driver in the history of the sport, and deservedly so.

Yet from afar, the man seemed a bundle of contradictions, alternately surly and effusive, a man who could be the perfect gentleman, then play the dolt who'd flip someone off as he roared past them in The Intimidator, with the italicized Number 3 stenciled on its roof.

When he had his last crash he was doing one of the things he did best: Protecting teammates Michael Waltrip and his own son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the two drivers who ultimately finished one-two in this year's Daytona 500.

The seemingly inconsequential collision with Sterling Marlin's car had deadly consequences, as The Intimidator fishtailed and was broadsided by Kenny Schrader's Number 36.

In a flash, The Intimidator slammed into the unyielding concrete wall at Turn Four of the Daytona Motor Speedway, and the magnificent Dale Earnhardt was no more.

The trauma surgeon said he died on impact.

It was the last turn of the last lap of NASCAR's season opener.

What grieved me the most was knowing that Earnhardt's wife witnessed her husband's death. That, and seeing his namesake slip away from the winner's circle and make his way to the battered wreck of his Dad's car, numbly watching as medical personnel vainly tried to get Dale's heart beating again.

The other image that will stay with me - aside from that of the videotape of the crash itself - will be the shocked disbelief of Earnhardt's fellow drivers, particularly Waltrip, when they heard that Dale “wasn't doing very well.” Earnhardt owned the car Waltrip piloted to victory, and I'm certain he would've traded the win for his patron's life.

Stock car racing is a dangerous sport, and injuries and deaths are the brutal byproduct of it. Yet, as in other professional sports, the participants always seem to believe that it only happens to the other guy. Unfortunately, it just ain't so.

Several other stock car drivers drove their last races last season, including Adam Petty, the grandson of Richard Petty, another man who epitomized stock car racing.

But Earnhardt's passing is the third of an unquestionable towering sports icon in recent memory, following the untimely deaths of Mickey Mantle and Walter Payton. As a sports fan and as a sports reporter, I've seen both the best and the worst of professional athletes.

Despite the fact I was neither a New York Yankees fan, nor a fan of the Chicago Bears, I wept at the deaths of “The Mick” and “Sweetness.” To me they represented men who overcame huge hurdles to become the very best in their sports.

Earnhardt, a high school dropout, likewise rose to the top of his field, a bright shining star in the firmament of stock car racing.

He was the poster child for all who overcome hardship and adversity and who strive to become the very best in whatever endeavor they choose.

And, yes, I wept at Dale's death, as well. His death is the third on the circuit in little more than a year.

Sad to say, it seems like the Lord is assembling quite a racing team in Heaven.

Sure hope He saves me a seat.
Old curses die hard

For the most part my Dad was a terrific guy.

More than 21 years after his death I still miss him.

He never knew my wife and kids, nor did he ever know - in this life, anyway - that I finally put away the childish things I let rule my life in my late teens and early twenties and actually grew up and did something constructive with my life.

There is one legacy however, I truly wish my dear ol' Pop hadn't left me with: My lifelong love/hate relationship with the Boston Red Sox.

Yes, I am one of those dyed-in-the-wool masochists who lives and dies by how the Sox fare.

Often I ask myself why I remain a Bosox fan. It's a prescription for failure, heartbreak and near misses.

My Dad lived long enough to see the Sox come out of nowhere in 1967 to take the American League pennant in the "impossible dream" year - only to lose to the Cardinals in the World Series.

He also was still with us in 1975 to witness Carlton Fisk's dramatic extra-inning homerun against the Cincinnati Reds - and then fall to the Big Red Machine in seven games.

Taking it a step further, my Pop witnessed the 1967 American League Cy Young Award winner, Jim Lonborg, tear up his knee skiing and destroy a promising pitching career following the loss to the Cards.

Likewise he shook his head in disgust when pitcher Bill Lee threw his eephus pitch to Tony Perez once too often in the '75 Series.

Can you say, "Slam dunk?"

My Dad was four years old when the Sox sold a young lefty pitcher named Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. In fact, the old man actually saw the Bambino play ball - for the Bronx Bombers, of course!

Meanwhile the Sox haven't won a world championship since 1918, the last year George Herman Ruth played for the Old Town Team.

Fortunately Pop wasn't around when Mike Torrez threw a gopher ball to Bucky Dent in the single, winner-take-all playoff game against the dreaded Yankees in 1978.

Nor was he here when Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson's grounder skip between his legs during the 1986 World Series against the Mets, ultimately lost by the Red Sox.

And obviously he didn't witness the best closer in the American League serve up T-ball watermelons to the heart of the Cleveland Indians batting order Saturday.

Just another day in the hard luck life of a Red Sox fan.

I knew we were in trouble Friday when ESPN broadcast a clip of Bucky Dent's pop fly which ended up in the Green Monster's net exactly 20 years ago to the day. Naturally the Sox lost.

Saturday the kids and I were on the edges of our seats as first Pete Schourek, and then Derek Lowe, handcuffed the Indians while nursing a 1-0 lead thanks to Nomar Garciappara's solo homerun.

Then those dogs at the Fox Network showed - yep, you guessed it - Bucky Dent's homerun.

I turned to my son and told him it was all over. The boy still hasn't caught on, though. I told him, "Just watch."

Enter Tom Gordon, who hasn't blown a save since April. Three straight hits later, the Flashmeister had paved the way for the Red Flops to lose, 2-1.

Exit the playoffs stage left, fellas. Forget the curtain call.

Lord, why me?

The Red sox should patent their penchant for structuring bad trades and idiotic player moves. I mean, what other professional sports franchise would even remotely consider giving up the rights to all stars Carlton Fisk, Rick Burleson and Fred Lynn by failing to mail contract renewals before the deadline?

How about General Mismanager Dan Duquette refusing to offer Roger Clemens a multi-year deal?

What other team would trade Earl Wilson for Don Demeter? Or Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater? Ken Harrelson for Joe Azcue? Try this one: Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen.

And look what we have to look forward to next year: Mo Vaughn coming back to haunt us!

Despite all my previous doubts, I now conclude it's real. The Sox are eternally doomed to come close but never grasp the brass ring.

Is there an exorcist in the house?

It's clearly the "Curse of the Bambino."

All because Sox owner Harry Frazee needed some dough to produce a couple of Broadway musicals.


Why, Pop, why? You could've saved all your descendants a world (series) of grief and heartache!

But, noooooooooooooo! I guess you figured like father, like son.

Dad, it's getting kinda old.

Jerry M. Gutlon is the Lake County government reporter at The Daily Commercial.