They say all the heroes are dead.
Certainly, the era of sports heroism is on life support. We idolize sports personalities like we always have, but we don't count them among our heroes like we did in the days of Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial.* This is, on balance, a good thing. Joe DiMaggio was a hero because the media turned him into one. In reality, he was an abusive jackass. Star athletes aren't heroes; they're human, and we shouldn't treat them any better or any worse for it.
*Arguments could be made for Teddy Ballgame and the Say Hey Kid in their own right...
But every so often, a star is born who is both a tribute to his or her sport and a testament to the human spirit. On this day, we crown another: Joshua Holt Hamilton. We all know his story by now--and if you don't, well let me Google that for you. Today, Mr. Hamilton was named 2010's Most Valuable Player in the American League.He's exactly who a hero should be: a human being, flawed like any other, who is able to recognize and triumph over his weaknesses and stand tall as a representative of everything that is good and hopeful in all of us. He's at once visible, successful and humble.*
*And I mean really humble. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of this man celebrating?
Josh Hamilton's story reminds me of the other sports figures whom I have grown to respect and admire as heroes. First and foremost in my mind is Dan Jansen, former Olympic long-track speed skater for Team USA who won his first gold in his final race at Lillehammer. I was just a kid when Dan the Man finally achieved his dream after falling short (literally) in so many games past--most notably in Calgary following the loss of his sister to Leukemia. He was the first athlete I remember admiring for more than his athletic achievements. He was the first I admired for his story.
Second is Lance Armstrong, who like Hamilton needs no introduction. Doping allegations notwithstanding, it's impossible not to admire the man who went from death's door to win seven Tours de France--one of the most grueling athletic competitions known to man. Third is Magic Johnson. Again, no introduction necessary.
And now I have a fourth.* There are other athletes I admire, but these are the only ones who competed during my lifetime whom I can see fit to call heroes. Whom might you add to the list?
*Just realized how male and white my short list is. Let me know who I'm missing! Keep in mind that I don't remember anything about sports prior to the Mets winning the 1986 World Series.