King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Greg Maddux is a 300-game winner and a wonderful role model. Our Olympians are being asked to act more like him. Too bad.

By Salon Staff
Published August 10, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

I was scolded by reader Cheryl T. Strauss Monday for failing to mention Greg Maddux's 300th win over the weekend. "In an age when 'role model' and 'professional athlete' almost never appear in the same sentence, except as some kind of cynical joke, Maddux is the real deal," Strauss wrote.

I didn't mention Maddux's achievement because I don't get as excited as most people seem to about counting milestones such as a 300th victory. Maddux is only the 22nd gent to win 300 big-league ballgames, and that's certainly a spectacular thing, but he was also only the 22nd to win 299 games.

Everyone got so much more excited about Maddux's 300th win than they're going to get about his 301st, a greater achievement. Aside from it being a higher number -- you're with me on that, right? -- he'll be only the 20th man to win 301.

I got another note from Aaron Rutkoff of Brooklyn, who spent two hours hiking around Manhattan Saturday in a futile attempt to find a sports bar that was showing the Cubs-Giants game in which Maddux got his milestone win. I didn't ask him, but I don't think Rutkoff is going to invest that kind of shoe leather into finding a spot to watch No. 301.

And why is this? Because 300 divides by 100, which is 10 times 10, and we have 10 fingers. That's it. If we had eight fingers, numbers that divide by 64 would resonate with us. The milestones would be 256 -- Tom Glavine became the 38th to win that many earlier this year -- and 320, a club of 14 joined two months ago by Roger Clemens.

Well, that's just silly, isn't it? Three hundred twenty? Two hundred fifty-six? Of course it is. There's nothing wrong with being silly, of course. If 300 means something to you, good for you, but for me the targets that resonate are the ones that have been set by other players -- numbers like 755 or 73.

None of this is to say that Greg Maddux isn't a fabulous pitcher, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, one of the all-time greats, and, yes ma'am, a role model. He's mentored younger pitchers in Atlanta and now in Chicago. He goes about his business on the mound, with no undue celebrating or posing. He's one of the great fielders ever at his position, a result of effort he could choose not to make without any damage to his reputation. He's modest and gracious in interviews and when he's not pitching he wears his glasses.

"Oh," adds reader Strauss, "and as a woman, I also notice he hasn't traded in his first wife for a Barbie. That's big news, in and of itself."

Sure, absolutely.

Problem is, I don't get too excited about role models either.

I found myself a little saddened to read in Tuesday's Times of London that American athletes are getting etiquette lessons for the Olympics. The 75-minute briefings, according to reporter Owen Slot, include tips on how to behave in victory and defeat and how to handle the flag.

I understand the motivation here. Most of the world is pissed off at the U.S. over the Iraq invasion, and the U.S. Olympic Committee implemented the program to try to keep American athletes from making a bad situation worse. But, Slot writes, "It also stems from the perception that Americans and sportsmanship are not particularly good bedfellows."

Judo fighter Ronda Rousey is quoted saying, "In our briefing, they told us we must really be polite, they dont want us reinforcing that whole 'Americans are rude' thing. The idea is to try and be very, very nice to everybody."

Four years ago the U.S. 400-meter relay team got the world's shorts in a bunch with its gold-medal celebration. You remember: The sprinters pranced around, struck muscle-man poses, draped the flag around themselves. They basically comported themselves like complete buffoons. It was great fun.

I like this sort of thing. I like the pitcher who gesticulates wildly after striking out a hitter, the hitter whose home run trot takes six minutes and includes a moonwalk around second base. And I like the pitcher who drills him in the ass next time up, too.

And I like Greg Maddux, who doesn't do any of those things. I hope my son grows up to be just like him, I really do. But in some sports, not celebrating wildly after you do something good is considered an insult, as if it came easily for you to beat the other guys. It's just a cultural thing. One way isn't better than the other.

Part of American culture, and I don't think a bad part, is just this kind of exuberance and excitability. Our culture includes Maddux walking calmly back to the dugout after a big strikeout or Scott Rolen modestly sprinting head-down around the bases, but it also includes Michael Johnson and his gold shoes and muscle-man poses or Allen Iverson and his tattoos and impetuosity. It's a big culture. I don't buy that one way of celebrating victory is good and the other is bad.

We could stop right here if we wanted and have a conversation about race, since it can be argued pretty convincingly that modest celebrations are the norm in white culture and exuberant ones are the norm in black culture. But I don't think we need to do that.

I suppose this makes me an ugly American, but if the rest of the world doesn't like the way Americans behave, too bad. Mostly what people don't like about Americans celebrating victory exuberantly isn't that they're celebrating exuberantly, but that they're Americans. The Brazilians are exuberant too, and nobody calls them ugly.

Yes, be polite and friendly off the field, of course. But if you feel like acting like an idiot because you just won a gold medal, act like a damn idiot.

Greg Maddux is indisputably great. But his way isn't the only way.

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