(Photo by Associated Press)
Because it’s mandated by federal law that every sports journalist write about Jeremy Lin (statute 22D-31), I wanted to make sure I am in compliance.
Trying to find a baseball comparable — someone who goes from unknown to national sensation virtually overnight, I came up with Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, way back in 1976. He was a non-roster pitcher, not touted at all, who made the Tigers roster out of spring camp. He didn’t even pitch in a game until April 20, didn’t make his first start until mid-May (when the scheduled starter got the flu). Fidrych threw six no-hit innings in a victory, remained in the rotation, and became a sensation. His quirks — talking to the baseball, manicuring the mound — and effervescent personality made him a hugely endearing and popular figure, and crowds began to flock to Tigers games. He won 19 games, led the league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24), started the All-Star Game and was AL Rookie of the Year. I was just starting college back then, but I well remember the furor over Fidrych, very similar to the growing tide of interest surrounding Lin.
But the comparisons that strikes me as equally apt are to Cal Ripken Jr., Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. What’s the connection? Glad you asked. Just like Lin, that group helped revive flagging interest in baseball after the devastating damage of the strike of 1994. In Lin’s case, it was a lockout, but the NBA has taken a beating this year in public image. Charles Barkley went to so far as to say that the quality of play was so bad, the league should consider contraction. Interest was waning — and then along came Lin, and suddenly everyone is a basketball fan. It’s a feel-good story of epic proportions that has to have David Stern dancing in his office (an image I don’t care to dwell on). The NBA owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
Similarly, back in 1995, it was Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record that helped remove the stench of the strike, and Edgar’s double to beat the Yankees that capped a sensational playoff series that reminded fans just how compelling the game can be. And then along came McGwire and Sosa in ’98 to elecitrify the nation with their pursuit of Roger Maris’s home-run record. Yeah, in retrospect, we know it was steroids-driven, but at the time, it was the most compelling story in sports, and helped return baseball to prominence.
I think the lesson here is that no matter how much damage is done off the fields of play, the games, and athletes, are so great that they will cleanse our memories and lure us back. For the NBA, that’s been Jeremy Lin’s greatest gift.