Mark Purdy, who has been a sports columnist for this newspaper since 1984, will retire from that job in August. He is writing a series of columns recounting the most memorable experiences of his four decades as a sports journalist. This time: Most unforgettable moments.
There’s nothing like that moment. That one stunning moment, rising above the others. If you’re a sportswriter, you live for that moment.
You sit through hundreds of kickoffs. Dozens and dozens of jump balls. Thousands of games. Some are fairly interesting. Some are moderately riveting. Some are Tuesday night A’s-Mariners showdowns for last place. Some are even less thrilling than that.
But suddenly, there’s a moment. You are in China inside an Olympic Stadium. A skinny guy from Jamaica named Usain Bolt — previously unheralded to most of the planet — is sprinting down the track. Bolt is going so fast he would be ticketed in a school zone. No human being has ever propelled himself this way in history. LeBron James and Michael Phelps are in the stadium watching. Multiple rows of television crews are screaming in multiple languages to every corner of the globe. At the finish line, the scoreboard flashes: 9.69 WORLD RECORD/OLYMPIC RECORD.
“Yes,” you think to yourself. “I am exactly in the right place at this very minute. Now, how in the hell am I going to describe what this is like to readers?”
Of course, that moment is not always at the Olympics. It could be at a ballpark where a no-hitter is in the final innings. It could be a double overtime Game 7 hockey goal. It could be Oracle Arena in 2017 with Kevin Durant going off in the playoffs. It could be 2013 in Atlanta with Colin Kaepernick leading the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
Witnessing those moments, so full of adrenaline and drama . . . with a deadline coming up in 30 or 40 minutes and your laptop screen blank . . . well, that’s what made my job so wonderful and awful over these past four decades. Those moments are what I will dream about in retirement–or at least the empty-screen-on-deadline part. Those moments are easy to identify when they happen, because they hit you in the face. One moment hit me in the face while a boxer was biting another boxer in the ear.
That was, of course, thanks to Mike Tyson. Since leaving the fight game, he’s evolved into sort of a quirky-loveable character. But in his prime, he was anything but. He went to prison for his worst behavior out of the ring. As a competitor, Tyson’s pugna horribilis occurred on June 28, 1997 when he maimed opponent Evander Holyfield for life.
As I sat on press row at ringside, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — even if boxing is notoriously bizarre. Rule No. 1 when writing about the sport: ‘Never say, ‘Now I’ve seen everything.”’
Anyway, with about a minute left in the third round, Holyfield and Tyson clinched. Tyson spit out his mouth guard, lunged across Holyfield’s shoulder toward his right ear and began to gnaw..In an instant, Tyson’s teeth tore off a one-inch wad of tube-shaped cartilage. As Holyfield yelped and hopped away from the clinch, Tyson spit the cartilage onto the mat just outside the ring.
“Did that really just happen?” I asked the scribe alongside me, Tim Keown of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Yes,” Keown answered as calmly as if he was ordering coffee. “He bit him.”
Incredibly, after a brief interruption, the round was allowed to proceed until Tyson once more went after Holyfield’s ear for another chomp. At that point, referee Mills Lane disqualified Tyson. That sent Iron Mike into a rage. As he left the ring, fans threw beer at him and began climbing into the seats. Police were summoned.
Here was the lead paragraph of my column in the following morning’s paper:
“Mike Tyson couldn’t fight back, so he decided to bite back. Even in boxing, this is not legal. If there is any justice, Tyson should not only be docked his $30 million purse for Saturday night’s travesty, he should be barred from his sport for as long as Evander Holyfield’s children keep asking him why his right ear looks like a small pizza with a slice missing.”
Tyson’s boxing license was indeed revoked by the Nevada Commission but reinstated the next year. He eventually apologized to Holyfield (on a special “Oprah” show, naturally!) and the two have moved on to seemingly peaceful post-boxing lives. My final memory of that 1997 night, though, is of a spectator named Mitch Libonati. He was in the front row when Holyfield’s of ear landed on the mat in front of him. Libonati retrieved it and delivered it to Holyfield’s dressing room but efforts to re-attach ear at a local hospital failed.
”It really wasn’t bloody,” Libonati told a few of us reporters at ringside. ”It was kind of like a piece of sausage.”
You’ll probably find this hard to believe, but that night still wasn’t memorable enough to crack the top five most unforgettable moments during my 43 years in this crazy racket. Here they are::
THE MIRACLE ON ICE
The 1980 Winter Olympics were my first Games. I was a 27-year-old columnist working for an Ohio newspaper. My eyes were never open wider. Lake Placid was a one-stoplight town in upstate New York. It was barely equipped to handle visitors from all over the world and the transportation system — mostly school buses — was a mess.I stayed in a summer motel outside town with only a space heater and no telephone. The media headquarters was musty-smelling Lake Placid High School. We wrote on typewriters in the gym. I didn’t care. I soaked it all in.
How could anyone have guessed that this modest setting would provide a moment that I still rank as the most exciting I’ll ever witness?
Answer: I couldn’t have. Before the Opening Ceremonies, we USA journalists were primed to cover what was expected to be the Games’ biggest story—America’s Eric Heiden winning an unprecedented five speed skating gold medals. The USA hockey team was much lower on the radar. Everybody knew the Soviet Union would roll through the Olympic tournament. In those days, no Soviet players could compete iin the NHL and no NHL players could compete in the Olympics. This allowed the USSR to dominate–until the miracle showed up.
Before the opening ceremonies, the Soviets were rightfully overconfident. A week before the Games began, they had routed the USA national team in an exhibition game by a score of 10-3 in New York. The Soviets then won their first three Olympic games by a combined score of 41-5.
Meanwhile, the scrappy USA team composed of college kids and minor leaguers, managed to slip through into the final medal round. This set up what amounted to a semifinal game with the USSR. No one thought the Americans had a chance. I recall visiting the hockey team’s living quarters — house trailers, more or less–and interviewing goalie Jim Craig. He talked about his strategy for the Soviet matchup.
”No different than usual,” Craig said. ”I just try to keep my eye on the puck at all times.”
In response, I wrote: ”He’d better wear safety glasses inside his mask.”
You probably know the rest. In the 8,500-seat Olympic arena, reporters sat in upper deck bleacher seats. It was cramped and difficult to take notes. But even early on, there was amazement. The amped-up USA players appeared to be skating a foot above the ice as they played the Soviets to a 2-2 tie after the first period. The Americans then fell behind in the third, 3-2, before scoring two goals in 90 seconds to take a 4-3 lead. The building was off the hook. In my notebook, I just kept scribbling, ”Emotion, emotion, emotion.” The game’s final 10 minutes, with Craig under assault, felt like two hours.
And then it was over. The USA players embraced and shot fists in the air. Outside on the streets, there was singing and yelling amidst the snow. I just softly said, ”Wow,’ then took a deep breath to write my column. Back at my rustic motel in the woods, I waited for my wife, who had flown into Albany for the final weekend of the Games and was slowly following a snowplow into Lake Placid in her rental car.
Barb arrived at around 1 a.m. and greeted me not with “I love you” but “How did we win?” We grabbed cans of beer I’d left to chill on the outdoor windowsill to chill. We kissed and toasted the USA. Two days after that, she and I would see the United States win the gold medal against Finland. But no one made a movie about that game. Years later, two players from The “Miracle On Ice” game became San Jose Sharks — Mark Pavelich of the USA and Sergei Makarov of the USSR. For the record, I neither kissed nor drank beer with either.
.KIRK GIBSON CRUSHES THE A’S SOULS
For columnists, the top moments do not always involve the home team triumphing. The Oakland A’s were heavy favorites to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. Game One in Chavez Ravine initially made the oddsmakers look smart. The Athletics took an early 4-2 lead on Jose Canseco’s grand slam that dented a television camera in centerfield. Can you imagine? A dented TV camera! I began writing because that was the obvious column.
Until we got to the bottom of the ninth. The A’s still led, 4-3, with sure-thing reliever Dennis Eckersley on the mound to close the deal. He retired the first two LA batters. Then everything went sideways. Eckersley, who had walked only 11 batters in 72 innings during the regular season, momentarily lost his control and handed the Dodgers’ Mike Davis a five-pitch base on balls gift. something I still can’t comprehend. The crowd then erupted as pinch hitter Kirk Gibson stepped — well, limped — into the batters’ box.
That’s because Gibson was not even supposed to be there. He’d wrecked his knee a few days earlier. After the knee didn’t respond to painkilling and cortisone injections, Dodgers’ manager Tom Lasorda had basically declared Gibson was not going to play, maybe for the entire series.
Yet here he was, after taking some swings in the Dodgers’ indoor batting cage and icing his knee to numb it as much as possible. Gibson couldn’t run. But he could bat. He worked Eckersley to a full count. Eckersley threw his usual “out” pitch, a back-door slider. Gibson was ready and hit it over the fence for a two-run homer and a victory. Gibson could barely haul himself around the bases, half-hopping and stumbling. As he approached home plate with his teammates crowded around, he yelled at them not to touch him because he was in such pain. What a scene.
I don’t think I have ever hit the “delete” key so fast on my laptop, to erase the Canseco-grand-slam-dented camera column. .
Here’s what I wrote instead: The following sentence is no exaggeration. The events of Saturday at Dodger Stadium will become a World Series legend, if not right up there with Babe Ruth’s called shot and Willie Mays’ catch, then somewhere in the same time zone.
I’m happy to say that time has proven me correct. The video clip of Gibson’s homer shows up every October. That night, after the game, I went to the LA locker room and watched as he limped toward toward the director’s chair in front of his dressing stall and sat down. Above the stall, a teammate had tacked up a piece of cardboard with “ROY HOBBS” printed on it, the name of the fictional movie hero in “The Natural” who hit a game-winning home run that set off fireworks and saved mankind.
”This is why we all play the game,” Gibson said to those of us around his locker. ”This is why we endure. Baseball is a cruel game. But when moments come along like this, it’s worth it . . . I was in the training room watching television. The camera panned the dugout, and Vin Scully said, ‘I don’t see Gibson in the dugout — I guess that’s a good sign that he’s through for the night.’ I said, ‘Bull.’ I sent the batboy to get the batting tee. Then I sent him to get Tommy.”
Meanwhile, over in the visiting locker room, Eckersley was professionalism personified, answering as many questions as writers had to ask and certifying his reputation as — literally — a standup guy. Lasorda, meanwhile, was holding his own calm and understated audience with the news media in the Dodger manager’s office.
”Find the greatest Hollywood writers!” Lasorda barked. “Find them! Aaron Spelling! Irwin Allen! They couldn’t write it any better than that!”
Alas, I could not locate Mr. Spelling or Mr. Allen, who in truth were not the most tremendous Hollywood writers ever–but were definitely Lasorda’s friends. All I know is, Gibson didn’t play again in the series. Didn’t matter. His dramatic home run sent the Dodgers’ confidence into the ozone layer. They beat the A’s in five games. I’m still not sure what happened to the TV camera.
WORLD SERIES EARTHQUAKE
Real life and sports have collided in my world way often. For example, the week before that Montana-to-Taylor Super Bowl game in Miami, the city endured nights of rioting that followed a police shooting of a young African-American motorcyclist. In 1999, I landed in Denver for a Sharks-Avalanche hockey playoff series just as the Columbine school shootings broke out. In both cases, I was pressed into service writing about those terrible stories.
The 1989 earthquake that interrupted the World Series was still entirely different. It happened on home turf. I wasn’t documenting another region’s tragedy. I was writing about our own. It strictly wasn’t a “sports moment” but it showed more than any other event in my experience how the world of games cannot be separated from the world of non-games.
On that October night just before Game 3 of Giants-A’s was supposed to begin, I was settling into my auxiliary press box seat in the upper deck at Candlestick Park. I had lived in California for just a little over five years but as soon as the rumbling began, I knew exactly what was happening.
“Earthquake,” I told my non-California friends in the press box. “It’ll be over soon.”
But the damn thing wouldn’t stop. I looked up to my left at the enclosed 49ers press box and noticed the windows wobbling and bending and shivering. I thought: “If those things pop out, we’re in real trouble.” Just then, the shaking stopped.
The first reaction was a lusty cheer from the crowd: “Hey, it’s a Bay Area series and this is cool!” But then reports reached the ballpark about the Bay Bridge section collapse and fires in San Francisco. The scoreboard flickered out. Power was gone. Things grew quiet. A cop with a megaphone told fans to evacuate. In the Giants’ parking lot, I shook my head as fans pestered the players for autographs as they were still in full uniform and ushering their loved ones into cars. The A’s team bus returned to Oakland via San Jose because the bridges were all closed.
Police kicked everyone out of the stadium, so we headed to the house of our editor on the Peninsula–he had electricity–and filed stories from there. Twenty eight years later, two things continue to fry my brain. One, what are the astronomical odds that the only time in history when the A’s and Giants met in the World Series, an earthquake would strike right before one of the games? And two, Candlestick Park, the biggest dump in Major League Baseball, did not collapse during all the shaking — even with a capacity crowd putting maximum weight on its girders.
Those days after the quake were a daze. The baseball was naturally postponed. I wrote that serious thought should be given to cancelling the Series, out of respect for victims and so that authorities could go about their rescue/cleanup work with no game traffic in the way. Tony LaRussa, the A’s manager, finally convinced me otherwise by saying that as long as the wait was long enough, what harm would be in resuming the Series? Who would it hurt?
After 11 days, Game 3 finally was played. Riding the elevator at Candlestick, a Major League executive told me I looked sad and drained. No one has said that to me on an elevator before or since. The A’s won in four games and had a restrained celebration. About 30 minutes following the final out, I walked into the office of Roger Craig, the Giants manager. Team owner Bob Lurie sat on a couch. He and Craig talked softly, trying to raise each other’s spirits. Lurie surely knew that his proposal to build a Giants’ ballpark in San Francisco, on the ballot in less than two weeks, was doomed to fail under the circumstances. This paled in relation to the larger earthquake recovery issue. But in the end, it set Lurie on a path to selling the team.
Here’s what I wrote after that exhausting two weeks: “I’ll say this for the World Series. It wasn’t fun while it lasted.”
Remember what I said about those unforgettable moments that sportswriters relish, the moments that rise above all others? The World Series earthquake was an exception to the rule. A moment, yes. Unforgettable, yes. But you can leave out the “relish” part.
STEREO SPRING FINALS
Just so you know, while I may be very old, not every moment my unforgettable five list occurred in the last century.
Also, just so you know, I am totally cheating with this item in my top five.
Because it’s really two items. Involving two teams.
In the spring of 2016, the Bay Area was a giant fidget spinner of American professional sports. For weeks and weeks and weeks, playoff games revolved around our lives constantly and vice versa. By early June, the Warriors had advanced to the NBA FInals and the Sharks had reached the Stanley Cup Final. (Don’t ask why basketball is a Finals and hockey is just a Final. It just is.)
I had never covered anything like it. Northern California had never seen anything like it. Only seven previous times had the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final been played in the same market–and never west of Philadelphia. We are way west of Philadelphia.
True, both teams wound up losing their last games and the series. But that was more than balanced by the two-month run-up to and through the Finals — 24 games by the Warriors, 24 games by the Sharks — and the joy it produced. Not to mention the car-window flags of yellow or teal that flew everywhere. They made the Bay Area rush hour look like a commuter carnival. Would you have wanted to live anywhere else during those two months? You wouldn’t.
Because of my unhinged hockey proclivity, my preferred assignment as the show opened was obvious—even if Sharks defenseman Brent Burns emerged from beneath his enormous beard one morning to express curiosity and mild disbelief.
“So you’re covering us in the playoffs, not the Warriors?” asked Burns, always a curious guy.
“That’s my assignment for as long as you keep going,” I said. “Just promise me you’ll keep playing long enough so I don’t have to cover the NFL draft. I hate covering the NFL draft.”
“I don’t know when that is,” Burns said. “I just know we’re going to be playing a long, long time.”
I never even sniffed the late April draft. I spent the next six weeks climbing on and off planes, writing about hockey games one night and on alternate nights, finding sports bars in Los Angeles or Nashville or St.Louis to keep track of the Warriors’ own journey. Draymond did what? Steph scored how many? For both teams, the Western Conference Finals provided the peak elation. The Warriors rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder to win in seven games. The Sharks beat the St. Louis Blues in six games, with the decisive victory coming at SAP Center and Logan Couture scoring the clinching empty-net goal with 20 seconds left.
“I almost hit my stick into the boards and knocked myself over, I was so excited,” Couture said afterward. “I took a few quick looks around, just to see everyone standing and cheering. They’ve been through a lot.”
That night, I was thinking about how I had been there at the Sharks’ birth in 1991 and at so many gut-ripping playoff disappointments by the beloved Los Tiburones over the next 25 years. So I didn’t blame the fans who I saw weeping in joy. Being in that building on that night was something I didn’t want to miss.
The six-game loss to Pittsburgh in the Final wasn’t as awesome. A few days later, I was at last free to cover a Warriors’ playoff contest–Game 7 against the Cavaliers. Watching the Dubs incredibly leak away their lead in the final quarter made for a good column but a bad result. It’s why the spring of 2016 may not rank as high on the delight scale for many locals. I’ll still take it over any other spring in my time as a Bay Area columnist.
MONTANA TO TAYLOR
Who in Northern California doesn’t know the legend? In January of 1989, the 49ers won their third Super Bowl on a last-minute drive by quarterback Joe Montana and his touchdown pass to receiver John Taylor.
Too often, however, the story is reduced to this: “Montana took the field with 3:20 left, saw John Candy on the sidelines and loosened up the huddle by pointing that out, then zipped the 49ers downfield and went to the trophy ceremony.”
No. No, no, no, no. There was so much more to it than that.
To begin with, many people forget that the 49ers struggled to reach the playoffs that season with a 6-5 record after 11 games. They won their last four to reach the postseason and then beat Minnesota and Chicago (at sub-zero Soldier Field) before facing Cincinnati in Miami. Bill Walsh, the 49ers’ coach, utilized the team’s underdog status to the max. At the 49ers’ hotel a few nights before the game, a few writers sitting around the pool drinking beer, Walsh stopped by our table and spent time taunting our group — I still can’t figure out if he was serious or kidding — for counting out the 49ers back in November. (Guilty.)
Then to the game itself. The first three quarters were turgid and sluggish with just one total touchdown scored. Cincinnati held a 13-6 lead as the fourth quarter began. The 49ers tied it at 13-13 before a Bengals field goal gave them a 16-13 lead with 3:20 remaining. This set up Montana’s beautiful painting. He and the 49ers took over at their own 8-yard line.
But it wasn’t just hey-there’s-John-Candy-here-we-go-touchdown! There were so many twists and turns on the drive, which began with short passes and Roger Craig runs. With 1:54 left, the 49ers still had 65 yards to go. Two more completions and it was 35 yards. But now Montana had hyperventilated. His head began spinning.
”It had never happened to me before,” Montana said later. “I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was yelling as loud as I could, but nobody could hear me. I was about to call time out, but then my head cleared a little so we ran the play.”
The drive almost ended right there. Montana, still woozy, overthrew Rice on the next play. Then a completed pass was nullified because center Randy Cross was flagged for being an ineligible receiver downfield. The ball was back on the 45-yard line.with 1:22 remaining. I’ll always believe the next play was the most critical one in the drive other than the touchdown because Montana immediately nullified the lost penalty yardage with a 27-yard pass to Jerry Rice. Another pass to Craig and the 49ers were at the 10-yard line. At times like those, the air really seems to be charged with special ions.
”At that point,” Cross said, “if we had to pick up Joe Montana and throw him across the goal line, we were going to do it.”
Instead, as we all know, Montana hit Taylor five yards deep in the end zone on “20 halfback curl, X up,” a play that the 49ers had not used all game. Afterward, Montana revealed that he was wearing the same red 49ers jersey he had worn in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford four years earlier. His wife had packed it for this trip, in case he wanted to wear it for good luck. The game was also Walsh’s final one as the 49ers’ head coach.
From my column that night: “If this was the last time Montana and Walsh would work together, it was the perfect victory lap. Years from now, no one will remember much about the special-teams mistakes the Niners made in this Super Bowl or about their frustrations in the first half. They will remember the last 3:20 and drink a toast to it. The legend of Joe Montana and the Walsh 49ers hardly needed another immortal chapter — they have gifted the Bay Area with more of those than it probably deserves — but they gave us one, anyway.”
Over on the losing side, I also spoke to Bengals’ wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who I’d known in my own Cincinnati years.
”Joe Montana is not human,” Collinsworth said. “I don’t want to call him a god, but he’s definitely somewhere in between.”
If that quote helped Collinsworth win his eventual top NBC analyst job, I’m taking the credit.
I saw Montana paint so many other masterpieces. Miami in Super Bowl XXIII was his finest. It wasn’t Lake Placid in terms of moments. But it was close.
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