At this holiday of abundance and gratitude, I would like to thank some of the people who make the fields and courts and pitches and courses a more rewarding place to focus one’s energies.
Thank you, Rafa Nadal. A year ago, it looked as though your knees might be in permanent rebellion against the pounding you subject them to. Since then, you have completed the career Grand Slam at age 24, and became the first man to win Slam titles on three different surfaces in one calendar year. You give your all on every point, never mind in every match. And you’ve done all this with a decency and maturity beyond your years.
Thank you, Mariano Rivera. Seasons come and seasons go, but your cutter keeps on breaking bats and spirits. At age 40, you recorded your eighth straight year (twelfth overall) with over 60 appearances and 30 saves; only Trevor Hoffman (with ten) has had more than eight in his career. Every year you take the ball in the brightest spotlight, and every year you do your job without question or complaint. You define the word “professional,” and embody an approach to pitching that we could call Ultimate Hedgehog (after the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”).
Thank you, Roy Halladay. You came to Philadelphia amid expectations that you’d instantly be the best pitcher in the league. One perfect game, one postseason no-hitter, and 270 innings later, you had achieved just that in the unanimous view of the NL Cy Young voters. Your work ethic is unchallenged, as is your appreciation of everyone who makes your effort possible. And thank you, too, Tim Lincecum, twice a Cy Young winner and now a World Series champion. Your mechanics are yours alone, the result of lifelong practice and the courage to be different. You and your teammates reminded a power-sated game of the beauty of a taut, torturous pitchers’ duel.
Thank you, Rex Ryan. You’re cocky and you’re confident, and you’re fun to root for and against. You laugh more on the sidelines than any pro football coach I’ve ever seen. There’s no question you’re tough and demanding, but there’s also no question you approach your life-eating job with a joy and gusto that’s contagious. No wonder your team is fearless in the face of near-certain defeat: you turn ‘em loose and let ‘em play.
Thank you, Kevin Durant. You took your talents to Oklahoma City, where you’ve won the first of many future scoring titles, put a scare into the eventual champion Lakers in the playoffs, played transcendent basketball at the World Championships, and quietly agreed to a max contract extension without an iota of fuss or fanfare. You declared yourself “blessed” to be receiving so much money, declined the opportunity to opt out before the final season, and then went to Orlando to root on your team’s summer-league entry. I hope you will remain the same kind of positive influence now that you’re older and perhaps more cynical, having turned 22 in September.
Thank you, Jon Miller. For twenty-one years you carried ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts with clarity and wit, bringing a fan’s enthusiasm to your descriptions and accounts. You say you’re looking forward to focusing on one thing, doing 162 games for the team of your youth, the San Francisco Giants. I’ve listened to you for years on national broadcasts, and heard the difference between your generalized approach to those games, as opposed to your more intimate and detailed work when you know you’re talking directly to a knowledgeable home crowd. I’m grateful that you still love and want to do the job, and urge anyone who can pick up your voice via satellite radio or the Internet to tune in for nine innings’ worth of great companionship.
And thank you, Cam Newton. When the ball’s snapped into your hands, Saturday’s America holds its breath. Will it be a punishing power run, a quick slash to the outside, a sharp throw to an open receiver, or some combination of any two? You’re electrifying on the field, and off the field you’ve inspired breathtaking levels of posturing and hypocrisy. It’s possible to be a true student-athlete, but the vast majority of college football players are a cheap source of labor in someone else’s for-profit enterprise. Is Auburn paying you? I hope so, because you’re sure as hell paying off for them.
To all those in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood, who at the best in the end know the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fail while daring greatly; and also to all those who guide them, direct them, or make art of their endeavors — my heartiest and most genuine thanks.