King Kaufman's Sports Daily

After a magnificent Sunday, I'm finally a believer.


Salon Staff
July 25, 2005 11:00PM (UTC)

I've disparaged him, belittled him, made fun of his accomplishments. I have consistently failed to acknowledge his value, not just to his own sport but to society.

But Sunday, finally, changed my mind. I'm a believer. I stand before you a changed man, and I'm ready to say what I've never been able to bring myself to say before.

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Neifi Perez is a god!

Perez, the Cubs' light-hitting shortstop, hit a game-winning, 10th-inning grand slam in a nationally televised game on the road against the arch-rival Cardinals, the best team in the National League.

Wait. Who did you think I was talking about?

Lance Armstrong? Oh, no. I've never disparaged his abilities. I've written that Americans don't care much for his sport, which is true, as I think we'll see in the coming years when Armstrong, about whom Americans care a lot and with good reason, is retired.

And I've written that the skill set required by his sport is limited relative to that required by sports Americans tend to favor, which is obviously a debatable point but one I still feel comfortable making.

I thought about writing something negative about Armstrong today because of something he said Sunday, but I've decided against it. More on that in a second.

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Because, listen, I just gotta talk about Neifi!

Sunday's game, won by the Cubs, 8-4, didn't mean much to the coasting Cards and likely won't end up meaning much to the Cubs, who are clinging to the fringes of the wild-card race. I didn't even watch most of it myself.

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But that winning shot was a certifiably great moment, even better than Alex Rodriguez ruining Curt Schilling's made-for-"Beyond the Glory" comeback game as a reliever a few weeks ago.

Here was Neifi Perez, namesake of this column's index of uselessness, having gone 50 days, 42 games, 171 at-bats since his last home run, tucking one next to the right-field foul pole, almost the exact spot where Ozzie Smith hit one of the home team's most famous home runs 20 years ago. On national TV.

Just one of the millions of moments that make up a baseball season, and one that'll be forgotten soon enough, but I loved it.

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Perez started this season the way he'd ended last season, when the Cubs called him up from the minors and he raked in September. There was a campaign to write Perez in as an All-Star after he hit .368 in April with three home runs.

He had an on-base percentage of .403 and a slugging percentage of .559, numbers that wouldn't have made Albert Pujols blush -- and didn't, when Pujols had a .406 OBP and a .550 slugging percentage in May.

Most of this was attributable to the fact that for whatever reason, Perez loves, loves, loves to hit at Wrigley Field and is actually good at it, something that's true in precious few buildings. It's kind of like how you think you have your best ideas in the shower, except statistically provable.

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He's cooled off considerably at Wrigley. Even after that hot start, Perez has a .331 OBP and is slugging .453, meaning that counting April he's turned in an adequate offensive year at home for a shortstop with a good glove, which he very much is. If current downward trends continue, we won't be able to call him offensively adequate for the whole year.

Combined with his hideous batsmanship on the road -- I won't print the numbers here so you don't have to get your magnifying glass out -- Perez has once again become the kind of player it's wise not to play if you plan on doing things like winning a lot of games.

But he won that game on Sunday night, and for one nationally televised moment, he was something else.

Lance Armstrong is something else and will be forever. His seventh straight victory in the Tour de France extends his own records for most wins and most consecutive wins, and he has dominated his sport and transcended it like few other athletes in history -- you have to talk about your Babe Ruths, your Wilt Chamberlains, your Michael Jordans.

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In the way that he's taken an obscure sport on his home shores and turned it into something Americans care about, at least while he's at it, the closest comparison I can think of is Arnold Schwarzenegger, though that requires a broadening of the definition of sport. Olga Korbut comes to mind if you take out the American part and the astonishing success and just think of a champion who lifted a sport's profile.

It's hard to find similar figures. That's how great Armstrong is.

And this is to say nothing of the fact that all seven of Armstrong's Tour wins have come after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. He beat it and became a better athlete than he'd ever been before. He's been an inspiration to millions and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the disease.

That's why I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt on this quote from Sunday's victory speech.

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"For the people who don't believe in cycling -- the cynics, the skeptics -- I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry you can't dream big, and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. But this is one heck of a race, this is a great sporting event, and you should stand around and believe."

I didn't hear his whole speech, but all of the writers who've put this quote into context in Monday's papers have said he was talking about people who have accused him of doping and believe the Tour de France is awash in performance-enhancing drugs.

I haven't found the writer who's explained where that interpretation comes from, but I gather it has to do with Armstrong long having labeled those who accuse him of drug use as "cynics."

Without that context it sure sounds like Armstrong is saying that those who aren't interested in bicycle racing or the Tour de France -- most of humankind -- "can't dream big" and "don't believe in miracles."

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And frankly that amazingly condescending, self-gratifying sentiment would fit right in with those of cycling fans, who in my experience are more likely than the fans of any other sport, soccer and baseball included, to believe that those who don't share their personal likes and dislikes are suffering from a character flaw.

But I trust that that's not what Armstrong meant. That's what winning the Tour de France seven straight times earns him from me, the benefit of the doubt. He had a hell of a day Sunday. Maybe even better than the one Neifi Perez had.

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