Down on the Farm: Olympic agony
The Olympics make me nervous. Most of the events are designed for heartbreak. Those poor kids leave home, practice for years, live like monks, win the months of qualifying rounds--only to have somebody from the French Antilles step on their shoelace in the 5,000 meter race and ruin it all.
Or, like the Egyptian wrestlers, they fail to show up for their match on time and forfeit, thus becoming national jokes even though you know it was the fault of some bus driver who took a wrong turn.
Or, they get a mind cramp right as they get ready to hit the vault and twirl through the air like a maple seed only to land on their butt and lose the gold to somebody who played it safe, twirled once less, but nailed the landing.
Science has improved training to the point where only a select few can even hope to reach the Olympic stage, and those few must be utterly devoted to a single, sometimes obscure, sport. Split second decisions. Psychological war. Unfair results. Silly rules. Years of preparation ending with an inglorious plop.
A highlight of the Olympics for me was a diving event when the camera focused on an aging Frank Viola. He was in London to watch his daughter, who finished in fifteenth place.
What a shock to find that the younger Minnesotans with whom I was watching had no idea who Frank Viola was, much less the pivotal role he played in 20th century Minnesota history. Our education system is failing!
Later, I got to comparing Frank Viola's athletic experience with that of his daughter.
The Twins pulled the elder Viola out of their minor league system way before he was ready to pitch in the major leagues. Frankie Viola embarrassed himself on the field, not for one Olympic moment, but for two full seasons as he struggled to master his change-up. For two years, he was one of the worst pitchers in the league.
Then, under the tutelage of pot-bellied pitching coach Johnny Podres, Viola mastered a deceptive pitch called the circle change-up.
Podres, a lefthander like Viola, was a mediocre pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers until the fall of 1955 when he burst into prominence by pitching the long-suffering Dodgers past the mighty Yankees for their first World Series title.
Podres' star student Viola burst onto the national stage in the fall of 1987 when he pitched the long-suffering Minnesota Twins past the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series title.
For the next few years, Viola was the premier pitcher in baseball. He painted the outside corner of the strike zone at will with a pitch that died half-way to home, crossing the plate long after tantalized batters swung.
Viola's artistry and orchestral surname inspired his nickname "Sweet Music." A fan spray-painted the silly moniker on a crude banner which hung near the foul pole at the Metrodome for Viola's every start. That banner is now the property of the Minnesota Historical Society and is every bit as important to our state's history as Fort Snelling--or Jesse Ventura's feather boa.
Like many Minnesota athletes who find success, Viola longed for more money and a bigger stage. Savvy Twins general manager Andy McPhail traded the disgruntled Viola to the New York Mets for four pitchers, three of whom helped the Twins win a second title in 1991.
Twins fans are used to treason, but Minnesota welcomes back its prodigal sons. Although Frank Viola still works for the Mets, when he appeared on the screen cheering on his daughter in London, it was like running into an old friend.
This is all to say that the young Olympians who fell, tripped, cramped, forgot to show up or just plain fell on their butt should realize that life is not like the Olympics.
No, life is more like baseball.
You work. You fail. You work some more. You get lucky. You embarrass yourself, but you come back the next day and try again. If you succeed thirty percent of the time, you're pretty good.
If you persevere over the course of many years, your failures will be forgotten and you will be judged primarily on the balance of your results over the long haul.
Unless you're poor Bill Buckner.
But that's another story.