Monday, April 09, 2007

"Appreciating the games' pioneers"

I’m not sure how long ago it was. But there was a day way earlier in his career – when he was hitting home runs effortlessly – when Ken Griffey Jr. was asked about the impact of Jackie Robinson on the game of baseball.

The youngster replied that he’d never heard of Robinson, who was major league baseball’s first black player. I remember thinking, are you kidding me? You don’t remember the man who made what you’re doing for a living today possible?

I added Griffey to the list of modern-day athletes who have no appreciation for those who set the foundation for their success and wealth (a fairly big list, by the way).

That was then, this is now.

On Sunday Griffey will be the Cincinnati Reds’ representative to wear No. 42 as MLB celebrates the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s breakthrough by having one player from every team wear No. 42 and the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster sport the historic number.

Griffey also wore No. 42 on the 50th anniversary 10 years ago, so it is clear that he didn’t just learn about the American hero recently. He most likely educated himself soon after his ignorant comment.

Kudos to Griffey.

There are way too many athletes at all levels of sports today who have no knowledge of the history of their sport. This is a disservice to those who made possible their amazing opportunity.

Also, how can someone be great – or even the greatest ever – if they haven’t watched or read about the greats from the past, the men or women who took their sport to new heights?

Athletes today are so talented, they don’t think they need to know their sport’s history to be successful. For the most part, they are right. A lot of the time they can get by on their phenomenal ability. But at the same time, they can learn from those who had the experience of playing for a long time. Whether it’s in person (such as Patrick Ewing working with Yao Ming) or through another source, such as a book or a video.

It’s not uncommon to hear today’s superstars, the players who transcend the game, talk about watching their heroes growing up and mimicking what they did on TV.

One reason I’ll always respect Shaquille O’Neal is because when George Mikan, the NBA’s first great big man from the 1950s, died, O’Neal not only paid his respects to Mikan. He also paid for the funeral, which Mikan’s family couldn’t afford.

O’Neal knew that if not for Mikan and the game’s other pioneers, there might not be a thriving NBA today.

Just like Griffey now fully understands the impact Robinson had on professional baseball.

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