"They come and they go, Hobbs; they come and they go." Robert Duvall to Robert Redford in "The Natural"
DETROIT -- I always loved that line, but I never realized how true it was in sports until last week. While vacationing out West, I went to a jazz concert in a small California nightclub. Not long after I sat down, a man and his wife sat next to me. The man smiled and said, "How you doing, Mitch?"
I froze. For the life of me, I couldn't recall his name. I fumbled; I apologized. I knew he was an athlete, but I could only stammer "Oh, hi . . . uh . . . " When he finally said, "You don't remember me?" I confessed that I was blanking out.
"Richard, man! Richard Johnson."
Of course! Richard Johnson, the Detroit Lions' wide receiver. What an idiot I was! I have interviewed him several times. I saw him just two months ago. Yet here, away from Detroit, away from sports, he had, momentarily, turned foggy on me, blending in with the hundreds of other athletes I meet in my job.
Maybe I'm going senile. That's a possibility. But later I got to thinking how easily athletes become part of your sports life, then suddenly, poof! -- they vanish, lost in the mists of memory.
And I began to notice something: it's not just me. It happens all the time. Take this past month in Detroit. One day, Jack Morris is here; the next day, he's gone. Jack Morris? Who worked the Tiger Stadium mound like a farmer, year after year, game after game? Jack Morris, whose face was always plastered across the newspapers here, yelling, laughing, saying something loud and controversial? Jack Morris?
Poof! He's history. Signed with the Minnesota Twins.
You know what?
Life went on.
They come and they go.
Another example: Isiah Thomas. He's the first face people think of when they think of the Detroit Pistons, but now look. He is injured. Out for the season. Not at games. Not at practices. I went to the Pistons' workout Tuesday and everyone else was there, dressing by their lockers, making their jokes. No Isiah.
You know what? The Pistons went on. They practiced. They laughed. I thought to myself, "Hmm, even though Isiah is coming back, how would this be any different if he weren't?" Answer: It wouldn't be. The players would still play, the coaches would still coach, the fans would still come out. Sure, if you ask the average man in the street, you might get "Gee, I can't imagine the Pistons without Isiah!" But at The Palace Tuesday afternoon it was more than imaginable. And one day, for real, Isiah won't be coming back.
They come and they go. I'm sure Emanuel Steward, who found this kid named Tommy Hearns wandering around his gym 20 years ago, and who turned this kid into one of the best boxers in the world, I'm sure Emanuel Steward never thought Tommy Hearns would leave him. But on Monday night, here was Hearns fighting alone, without Steward, not in Detroit but in Los Angeles, in the Forum, home of the Lakers. The Lakers?
They come and they go.
The list goes on. Who would have thought that Jacques Demers, the most visible coach in Detroit Red Wings history, would ever leave before his time? Next thing you know, he's fired. Bill Lajoie, after all those years with the Detroit Tigers, could he possibly work anywhere else? The answer, we learn, was yes. Andre Ware, just a year ago, was the toast of the town. Now, after seeing him play for five minutes this season, everyone wants him traded.
We make them heroes. We call them "franchise" and "untouchable." But franchises are disenfranchised, untouchables are touched. And next thing you know, Ernie Harwell is gone.
They come and they go.
I'm not sure what I want to make of all this, but it sure puts things into perspective. We go nuts over our current sports heroes. We act as if we could never live without them, and they would never live without us. The truth is, we are wrong on both counts. No one is that important. No one is irreplaceable. It has been proven over and over, here and elsewhere.
So it is that two Saturday nights ago we saw Sugar Ray Leonard, who was once the image of the indomitable boxer, get his clock cleaned by a nobody named Terry Norris. Bye-bye, Sugar Ray. And that same day in Charlotte, N.C., where fans once thought David Thompson was God, they watched him walk out for an old-timers' game, which, after a life of drug abuse, he was playing in at 34. David, we hardly knew ye.
And Pete Rose is no longer welcome in baseball. And I keep seeing that movie, "The Natural," where Redford asks Duvall to explain his cynical attitude toward sports. And Duvall leans back and says, "They come and they go, Hobbs; they come and they go."
Makes you wonder, no? That receiver in that nightclub? Richard Johnson? The Lions put him on the Plan B free-agent list a few weeks ago. His career may be over if no one picks him up.
They come and they go. And sometimes, only if they're lucky, we remember their names.