Monday, August 17, 2009

Proving Ground

Sports has always been a proving ground. A moment in time when, in the heat of battle, a champion rises above the competition, an underdog defies the odds, an all-star becomes a juggernaut, warriors fight to the death, or tarnished, tormented souls gain redemption.

We saw all of that this weekend in the world of sports. First the champion. Jamaican Usain Bolt entered the World Track and Field Championships as the "fastest man in the world". The only obstacle, besides topping his Olympic gold-winning performance in the 100 meter finals, was his arch rival, American Tyson Gay. Gay, the previous record holder, did not compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, so this was the showdown the world was anticipating for over a year.

Gay, injury-free, ran his personal best, an impressive 9.71 seconds. The problem was Bolt is now at the top of his game. The Jamaican speedster set a new world-record Sunday, crossing the tape in a blistering 9.58 seconds. The time gap is a little more than a tenth of a second difference, but in the world of track and field, for those who watched it, it was a dominating performance by Bolt. With his powerful, fearless, upright running style, Bolt lived up to his name and has earned the respect he so rightly deserves as the most dominating sprinter in a generation.

To the underdog. Tiger Woods has approached the first tee of the final round of a major golf championship with the lead 14 times in his career prior to this weekend. He won all 14 of those majors. Sunday was his fifteenth attempt to do it again. He is now 14 of 15, thanks to the inspired play of a young South Korean golfer named Y. E. Yang. Yang erased a two-shot deficit going into the final round and won the PGA Championship at Hazeltine Country Club by three strokes.

Woods shot a mortal 3-over-par round, struggling mightily as his putter, so true in the first two rounds of the tournament and in the previous two weeks of PGA Tour competition, let him down. It was Woods that seemed like the player seeking his first major and Yang looking like the steely veteran. Woods had his moment at the 17th hole to tie the match but suffered one of his many putting yips and when Yang sank the birdie putt on the final hole, it punctuated one of the greatest upsets in the history of professional golf. You see, Yang started playing golf later in life, had won only one PGA event, and wasn't even ranked in the top 100 of the world's golfers as of last Thursday. That has quickly changed and I believe that Yang will have the opportunity to stare down the Tiger again on many Sundays to come.

Ian Kinsler's performance this weekend against the Boston Red Sox defines the transformation of an all-star into a juggernaut. The Texas Rangers' second baseman, playing in his first series since severely injuring his hamstring, has proven he is one of the best in the game. Saturday and Sunday at the Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, he transformed into a force that propelled his team squarely in Major League Baseball's 2009 playoff race. Due to his efforts, Kinsler has the Rangers in the driver's seat for the fourth playoff slot in the American League.

It all started like this: Kinsler, in his first at-bat since coming off the disabled list, on the first pitch, crushed a shot into the left-center field stands to tie the game in the first inning. Then, the Red Sox decided to play hard ball. They pitched him inside the next at-bat to send a message. Later, pitching hard inside again, Kinsler was hit by a pitch in the head. Kinsler, clearly angry for the tactics, got up and got even. The next game, Kinsler blasted a home run in his first at-bat and drove in another run later to help Texas vault past the BoSox to the top of the Wild Card standings. Kinsler's line in two games: .666 batting average, two runs scored, four hits, two home runs, three runs batted in and a stolen base. This is how legends are born, and MVPs chosen. If Kinsler can carry this talented team on his shoulders for the remainder of the season, the transformation will be complete.

Our warriors this weekend were Christane "Cyborg" Santos and Gina Carano. Carano entered the Mixed Martial Arts 145-pound title fight as the defending champion. She has been the face of female MMA fighting and been a tremendous ambassador for the sport. The only woman many felt could give Carano a run for her money stepped into the cage Saturday evening. Santos, known as "The "Cyborg" because of her relentless punching power, was the brute strength challenger that would push Carano's near-perfect technique to the test.

After four minutes and 39 seconds of great fighting action, better in my opinion than a lot of the male title fights that have recently taken place, Carano clearly ran out of gas and was dazed by Santos' powerful Jujitsu punches. As seconds ticked down toward the end of the first round, Santos pounded a nearly-defenseless Carano until the referee stopped the fight as the bell was sounding. Fight fans felt the ref should have let the round end and determined whether the fight should continue in between rounds. But from what I saw, the ref was clearly starting to call the fight with seven seconds left and waved it off just before the end of the round. If the ref had practiced that, I don't think he could have nailed it that precise. Carano was definitely in severe trouble and remember, it only takes one punch to do major permanent damage. The referee was right to stop the fight and I cannot wait for the rematch.

Finally, the tormented soul better known as Michael Vick is seeking his redemption. The Philadelphia Eagles this weekend shocked the sports world by signing Vick, the former Pro Bowl Atlanta Falcons quarterback who served two years in federal prison stemming from his illegal dogfighting activities, to a deal that can pay him up to $1.6 million a season. Unfortunately, this story is still being written. Vick will be a backup for Donovan McNabb. Protesters are picketing everything that the Eagles do. Sports talk show phone lines have been lit up all weekend long, either trashing or praising the boldness of the move.

It will be interesting to see how Vick handles this chapter of his life. If he has truly learned his lesson, he can tune out his critics and let God deal with the reproach. With the support system the Eagles' organization has, an empathetic head coach, a true mentor in McNabb, and an added bonus of Tony Dungy as his personal advisor, the tools are there for him to succeed. God help the NFC East if he can stay grounded and can still be electrifying on the football field, even in a limited role.

This is why I love sports. The stories, the games, the passion-this is what defines true athletic competition. Long live sports, long live the proving ground.

I wonder what will happen next weekend? I can't wait.