Joe Gibbs' comeback remains under review

Coach's decision recalls other returns

January 09, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

News of Joe Gibbs' return to coach the lackluster Washington Redskins released a stink of cliches yesterday from scribes in Baltimore's stepsister city down on the Potomac.

Return of the King! they crowed. Time loves a hero! Back to the future!

Have our good neighbors to the south perhaps forgotten two of the most quoted aphorisms about the dismal prospects of comeback contenders?

"There are no second acts in American lives."

"You can't go home again."

OK, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe probably never were among the most reassuring observers on the American scene. But they have proven adept at calming obsessions with naive expectations.

Sorry if this seems unsportsmanlike, Washingtonians. But the phoenix doesn't always rise again.

According to a May 2000 Harvard Business Review article, for instance, about 70 percent of all corporate turnaround efforts end up as failures. "Happily ever after," it seems, may be good for fairy tales (and enraptured sports writers), but comeback fantasies like the one now fermenting down the road usually have a pretty short shelf life.

Besides, says Baltimore-born sports philosopher Frank Deford, this really doesn't qualify as a "comeback" at all.

"I don't think of this as a comeback," the veteran Sports Illustrated writer told us yesterday. "I think of a comeback as somebody who is beaten down and regains [the heights]. ... A comeback is you've been fired or beaten and then come back to glory. [Gibbs] took a long sabbatical."

Former star baseball pitcher Jim Bouton, a famous comeback kid himself, agrees.

"Joe Gibbs is no comeback. This is a media comeback, with all due respect," said Bouton, the Yankees star and author of Ball Four who came back to baseball in 1978 after seven years in retirement. "If he was 85 years old and had stayed out 35 years, that's a comeback. Out 10 years? No way is that a comeback."

Now, some might beg to differ. Some pretty successful comebacks have been achieved over the years after shorter "sabbaticals."

William Donald Schaefer, former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, was overwhelmingly elected state comptroller in 1998, four years after he left the statehouse. In 1997, after several years away running other ventures, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs was drafted to come back and lead the company, and rebuilt its fortunes. Even Richard M. Nixon, who lost the California governor's race in 1962 and famously exited politics, resurrected his career and was elected president just six years later.

Of course, that particular comeback ultimately didn't work out so well. Nor have some other bigtime Washington comebacks.

Who among our D.C. friends wouldn't want to forget the spectacular return to politics of Marion Barry, who served three consecutive terms as the city's mayor in the 1970s and '80s and a fourth in the 1990s - before flaming out on another round of drug troubles and making the District a national laughingstock?

Who would be spoil-sport enough to remind them that superstar Michael Jordan's return to basketball in Washington brought instant luster to a hapless team, but after a couple of so-so seasons, even his magic couldn't revive the so-called Wizards, one of the past decade's most unsuccessful franchises in professional sports?

Who would be mean-spirited enough to mention that?

Think of it as good-natured advice, dear D.C. Baltimoreans understand this kind of thing.

Face it, hoopla over a white knight's return is often a lot of hullabaloo - and the inevitable flameouts often a sad spectacle.

Like Elvis dropping dead on the toilet.

Like Marlon Brando drooling into his double chin.

Like Tammy Faye Bakker Messner ramping up for a new career in reality television.

Baltimoreans, of course, know the pain of grand hopes going unfulfilled, too. Witness those once hung on the return of legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver after just three years away from the game.

The baseball Hall of Famer and long-time field leader first retired in 1982, after a sunny season when the O's treated fans to a remarkable September comeback for the division lead. Although Weaver's boys lost to Milwaukee on the last day of the season and failed to make the playoffs, he led them to 94 wins and left teary-eyed to a standing ovation from the Memorial Stadium crowd.

(Not too unlike 1992, when Joe, uh, What's-His-Name left Washington with a .683 winning percentage and three Super Bowl victories.)

In '82, with a .596 major league winning percentage, Weaver was topped only by Yankee legend Joe McCarthy's .614 in modern baseball history.

Lured out of retirement in 1985, the aging Weaver replaced Joe Altobelli at midseason and ended the year sadly: The O's posted a 53-52 record under him, and Weaver left his still-hopeful fans with a famous memory - being ejected from both games of a doubleheader. The next year, the O's finished 16 games below .500, and the poor man retired once and for all.

Oh, Baltimoreans remember.

But let's try to look on the bright side. How about a few exceptions to spectacularly failed comebacks?

Rock legend Ozzy Osbourne returned to public prominence after becoming, well, a fading rock legend, with his own reality TV series, and proved himself an even greater world-class buffoon.

And every Hobbit-head out there knows the King really did return after Frodo tossed the cursed golden ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

We saw it at the movies.

So maybe we're wrong. Perhaps anything is possible.

Especially in Washington, where optimism and goodwill always shine, from the halls of Congress to the aromatic banks of the Anacostia River.

Hope always springs eternal.

Sun staff writer Linell Smith contributed to this article.

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