By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
This is a story about Tiger Woods. It begins a long time ago, when I was but a lad, and my father snuck me into the New York Yankees dugout.
Dad was an actual Mad Man in those days, one of the guys whose service as an officer in the South Pacific with Douglas McArthur took the place of the college degree he never had, and won him entry to Manhattan in the golden years, which we all now recognize were not so golden.
He took the Long Island railroad in each day to a Park Ave. skyscraper, hung out in the club car on the way home, and got off at the Cold Spring Harbor station, where Mom would pick him up in our Corvair Monza. I can see him stepping off the train in a brown fedora and tan trench coat, a copy of the Herald Tribune rolled in his pocket, grinning like a young Jack Nicholson. We did not know, until years and sorrow later, what it took from Dad to be a fix-it man's son in the executive suites, where everyone else shared stories from the eating clubs of Princeton. That cost was hidden, like much else.
It pains me to acknowledge, but I was, as a kid, a Yankee fan. Down all the days, the names come easy: Mantle and Ford and Berra and Maris and Boyer and Skowron and Richardson and Kubek and Howard and Bauer. The Yankee skip was Ralph Houk, who had a buddy who was an American League umpire, who was a pal of my dad... And so one day, there I was in the Yankee dugout, hanging out in the dressing room, and strolling the turf of the House That Ruth Built, getting autographs from the gods of baseball as they took batting practice before a game.
I recall how Rollie Sheldon, a promising young pitcher whose career never fully blossomed, was a kind and gentle man. That Roger Maris seemed so quiet. That Whitey Ford had a pot belly. And that Mickey Mantle was a churlish jerk. He grabbed the pen, scribbled his name, turned his back and walked away. Not a word. Not a smile. I was crushed.
Now I know how Mantle struggled with his demons, suffered from injuries, cheated on his wife, was a sorry drunk. And as much as I worshipped the baseball card hero as a boy, as a man I hold his achievements with more knowing regard. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and choose to believe he was dealing with pain, and not a hangover, when he brushed me off that day. Maybe he was just annoyed that his private space—the sporting field—had been invaded by another goofy adorer, demanding one more little piece of him.
There is little to say that hasn't been said about the clay feet of sporting idols. One of the finest magazine stories ever written, on Tiger Woods by my friend Charles Pierce in Esquire magazine, pretty much ran the table on that score. Pierce profiled Tiger a time ago, before all the major championships, when Eldrick was young enough to let some self show through. It stands today as a terrific piece of writing and, in light of what happened on Thanksgiving weekend, remarkably prescient.
The online edition of Esquire has now asked Charlie to comment on the Tiger scandal. In doing so, he has forsaken his previous understanding, and enlisted with the Tiger-bashers. I dissent.
His creator gave Tiger a remarkable set of talents, and indomitable parents. He has, for the most part, showed respect and gratitude for these gifts. And in a sport that I love, but is regrettably hidebound on matters of class and race and gender, this son of a black soldier and an Asian mother has, with considerable aplomb, shattered some ugly stereotypes. Because he is a private man, we do not yet know what that has cost him.
Is Tiger conceited? Yup. But no more so than any other preternatural talent I have met in a career of chronicling athletes, actors, politicians, and other public figures. Fame has a terrifyingly corrosive effect on the soul. Those classy acts who can navigate the game—the Paul Newmans and Cal Ripkens and Ronald Reagans—are rare indeed, and who knows but that they too were chased down a driveway by an angry blonde in their time?
Golf lets you nuzzle the field of play, and most golf fans will attest that Woods is human. I have watched from the gallery, inches away, as he hit an ungodly shot from the boondocks to the green, then smashed his club to the ground in anger, startling us and stilling our cheers, because he had not met his own definition of perfection. I have seen him snarl at photographers. I have seen him ignore folks seeking an autograph. And he surely is a foul-mouthed SOB; we all have heard him curse.
But I have also watched, from afar, as Tiger won the Open on a broken leg. And seen him, many times, laugh at a wisecrack from the crowd, or greet fans with a smile. Do you want to see a young celebrity, in the glare, handle an embarrassing moment? Google "Tiger Woods" and that four-letter word that stands for release of intestinal gas. It is a silly little clip, but there's a glimpse of a real person there.
Does Tiger obsessively guard his image? Yes. So? Doesn't the Internet age require it? He is not Jackie Robinson, but he's still a role model and a barrier-breaker. And Woods is a businessman, a good one, in a country that rests its commercial culture, and too much of its economy, on the pillars of advertising, consumerism, brand, and image. Who's the hypocrite? We who make the stars? Or the stars who, trying to cope with the hype, must fail?
And then there is Sex. Let's see. A fabulously wealthy athlete, in the prime of youth, whose profession takes him far from home for considerable amounts of time, in the company of jocks and corporate leeches, may have (it's not proven) engaged in extramarital sex! Is there anyone, on the planet, who is shocked? Is there anyone who doesn't understand why the latest Party Girls come fully equipped with celebrity agents and portfolios of salacious photographs? Doesn't every wholesome lass have shots on Google Image, hair coiffed, made-up or air-brushed, pouting in her underwear or overflowing her bikini, dollar signs in her eyes?
Tiger has screwed up. Publicly. Big time. He has terribly hurt his wife and threatened the long term happiness and security of his children, who he professes to love. He will never quite be the trading card hero he was before he hit that hydrant.
But you know what? The rest of us, selfishly, should be grateful. Knowing they were human, wrestling with demons, each new morning, struggling to take it a day at a time, just adds to our regard for the flawed Mickey Mantle, or the gritty Ben Hogan, or the alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Tiger's quest to beat Jack Nicklaus's record for the most major championships was getting to be routine, maybe even boring. Then the kid with the golden gifts ran into life, and has had to show us more. In the Open at Torrey Pines, unforgettably, he did so. Last summer, going 0-for-4 in the majors, getting whipped by tour nobodies, he failed.
Take your plastic saints. We learn nothing from them. A life is not plastic; it is blood, gold, sin, tragedy, drugs, and desire. And prevailing. And redemption.
Tiger Woods just got a lot more interesting.