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Greatness deserves its own stage

Tiger Woods has experienced his share of bad breaks, including those that have been self-inflicted.

Despite his well-documented achievements on the golf course, Woods is once again an underdog. To regain his stature as one of the world’s premier golfers, he will need to overcome significant odds.

Many are pulling for Woods to not only recover fully from the injuries suffered in his car accident, but to reclaim the glory that envelops a champion.

The reason why can be traced, in part, to our own selfishness.

Woods captures our imagination. Even the most casual observers of the sport follow his play. As Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan wrote, “Watching golf without Tiger is like eating cereal without milk. It’s just not the same.”

When Michael Jordan announced that he was retiring from basketball to pursue a professional baseball career, after winning three straight NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, the negative reactions were based as much on personal disappointment as on Jordan’s prospects for success.

Fans sensed the pending deprivation and their disillusionment took the form of skepticism. Taking Jordan’s name off the NBA marquee was like announcing The Beatles would never perform together again.

“Jordan’s impact on television was huge — the transcendent star whose presence was guaranteed to lift ratings,” wrote Richard Sandomir of The New York Times.

An athlete’s performance is not his or her’s alone.

In 1961, a riveted sporting public tracked daily the diamond exploits of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the Yankees as they approached Babe Ruth’s season record of 60 home runs.

A late-season injury derailed Mantle’s campaign at 54, but Maris forged on under immense pressure that caused his hair to start falling out.

He eventually bested Ruth on the last day of the regular season, breaking a record that had stood for 34 years.

Describing the intense interest in the home run race of 60 years ago, Hubert Mizell of the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “The Maris-Mantle drama got the heaviest morning headlines from Maine to Maui. Roger and Mickey were mesmerizing on New York’s biggest stage, Yankee Stadium. Getting far more attention than Broadway.”

He recalled that, “People would talk Mantle-Maris in company cafeteria lines, in church pews, at bus stops and in grocery stores.”

Professional athletes draw a paycheck like everyone else who works for a living, but the difference is their flair for the dramatic, which attracts interest, cultivates a fan base and perpetuates fame.

Triple Crown winner Secretariat demonstrated so much flair that the thoroughbred earned a No. 35 ranking on the ESPN SportsCentury list of the top 100 North American athletes of all time.

Secretariat’s combined times for the three legs of the 1973 Triple Crown totaled just over six minutes of racing. Yet to this day, the spirit of competition that defined the chestnut colt beats vibrantly in the heart of public consciousness.

Commenting on international soccer superstar Pele, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “Heroes walk alone, but they become myths when they ennoble the lives and touch the hearts of all of us.”

Joe DiMaggio was one such hero. Phil Rizzuto, a former teammate, once observed that DiMaggio “walked like no one else walked.”

It was part of the aura that surrounds celebrities. And helps to explain why our reverence for them endures long after their final curtain call.

Caltagirone resides in Altoona. He is a frequent contributor to Voice of the Fan.

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