During the week I learned that the baseball player Tom Seaver passed away recently.
Seaver was one of the all-time greats in the sport with a dazzling record as a New York Mets pitcher - Tom Terrific was one nickname, to give an idea of his standing - but that’s not the reason I’m mentioning him here.
In his manual on how to play baseball - or how to play his position, specifically -, Seaver got absolutely granular in his focus. For budding stars Seaver had the following advice: to concentrate on the ball, but not in a diffuse, unfocused way.
“Somewhere on that ball there is a spot that feels as though it was born to be, the perfect place for your fingers,” Seaver wrote.
“On those days when you are not pitching and are just watching your teammates play, hold a ball in your hand as you watch the game from the bench. Feel every aspect of the baseball.”
It sometimes occurs to me that in the rush to prepare athletes for team sports, in particular, there can be a wood-for-the-trees element.
Yes, there are significant areas that can’t be neglected. For instance, strength and conditioning (absolutely essential); tactical awareness (very important); and psychological buttressing (far from convinced to be honest, but each to their own).
What about the most basic element of the game, though?
What about the ball?
An intimate acquaintance with the fundamental element of the game isn’t a given. Paul Galvin wrote an intriguing column some years ago in which he wondered if many inter-county footballers owned a regulation-size O’Neill’s football.
A very good question, particularly when you compare professional soccer players’ familiarity with the most basic implements at their disposal.
David Beckham was often a figure of fun in his playing days - and since then, if we’re being honest - but when he was asked 20 years ago about practicing free kicks with his bare feet to improve his feel for the ball, he was quite frank.
In 2000 he told the Guardian: “It's something I’ve always done.
“I did have bad toenails and a fungal infection in all my toes around the World Cup but I got put on tablets for six months and that cleared it up.”
Attention to detail seems expected in some sports more than others.
Yours truly spent a warm morning running around the ball alley in Rochestown a few years back with Justin McCarthy. In between sweating like a pig in a plastic bag I collected some pearls of microwisdom: “As the ball is coming back and forth, a fella is inclined to hold his hurley with the bas down.
“Then, when the ball comes, he has to bring his hurley up and down again to play it, whether it’s to pull or pick it.
“If you have the hurley held up, up all the time, it’s better, because you’re ready for the ball, you don’t have two movements to make. See? It’s easier.”
The smallest detail can make the difference. Every successful sportsperson knows that.
And every successful sportsman knows how to use those details. Tom Seaver, for instance, was famous for his pitching motion: when he threw the ball his action was so low and thorough his knee would sweep the ground and get dirty.
After he finished playing, he made a confession. He had always rubbed dirt on the knee regardless so opponents would see it and think: “‘Oh, Tom’s in a groove today.’ Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t, but I wanted them to think I was no matter what.”
Using every weapon at your disposal? That’s real attention to detail.
Cyclists too busy on the roads to catch Tour on TV
Congratulations to Sam Bennett, who picked up a green jersey last week in the Tour de France - he became the first Irishman in 31 years to wear green in the race.
The fact that it was another rider from Carrick-on-Suir who preceded him in 1989, Sean Kelly, is remarkable enough in itself, though not as remarkable as people’s willingness to get annoyed, or pretend to get annoyed, when Bennett was variously claimed by Tipperary and Waterford as one of their own.
Topping the remarkability stakes, though, is the strange place that professional cycling now occupies in the sports fan’s mind. There seems at times to be quite the contrast between the coverage afforded the sport and the interest among the general public in its top exponents.
The obvious comparison is between the golden age of the eighties, when the exploits of Kelly and Stephen Roche were the talk of the nation, and their principal opponents’ names known to all.
Back then we all knew Pedro Delgado, Jean-Paul van Poppel, Eric Vanderaerden, and my own favourite, Claude Criquelion, who sadly passed away in 2015. How many can name the top five or six contenders in this year’s Tour?
You’d expect the vast array of middle-aged men pounding the roads to know, but perhaps that’s the crux of the matter: the kids who were fans in the eighties are too busy cycling themselves now to just watch passively.
Which is a victory of sorts, I suppose.
During the week you might have seen that a Laois club chairman had to line out in goal so his club could fulfil a fixture.
Tim Barry of Rathdowney-Errill put on the goalie’s jersey and showed that a 72-year-old could do a job, though he was less than definite about playing in the club’s next game.
See? You can’t help spicing it up with an aside or a tone, and it’s the kind of good news yarn that always brings a smile.
Without focusing on Rathdowney-Erril, though, is there a deeper story here - one that goes beyond even the pandemic and lockdown? Is there something here which could be taken as the beginning of an investigation into club numbers?
Over the last couple of weeks an anecdote here and an observation there suggest to your columnist that this might be worth revisiting
in more detail at a later date. In the meantime, thanks to Tim Barry for kickstarting the debate.
A message to the New England Patriots and NFL fans in my orbit.
Yes, I am readingof the New England Patriots by Jeff Benedict, and yes, it is very good.
Over the years I have declared my bias against the Patriots because of an incident we need not raise here again (if you are referring to your cousin Bridget Moynahan then we will most certainly not be raising it - ed.).
That said, this book is a rewarding trip along the Patriot journey from laughing stock both on and off the field to the dominant superpower it has now become.
It’s in the nature of a book like this to cast its main protagonists as misunderstood and quirky rather than savages who feast on the tears of orphans, which is nearer the truth (what did we say ? - ed). But it’s a terrific read made all the better by focusing on the team owner, Robert Kraft: the doors opened for him by the success of his team go a long way to explaining why someone like Donald Trump was so keen to own an NFL team.