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Commentary: Sports Teaches That All Can Be Replaced Even Michigan State Leaders

Lou Gehrig chewing gum card

You may not have heard of him but baseball historians well remember Walter Clement “Wally” Pipp. He was the starting first-base man on the 1925 New York Yankees.

The graveyards are full of indispensable men. --Charles De Gaulle

One day, the story goes, he arrived at the ballpark complaining of a terrible headache. Manager Miller Huggins overheard Pipp asking the trainer for aspirin and subsequently told him to take the day off to recuperate. 

In his absence, Huggins would give the kid who backed him up a little playing time to see if he could cut it in the bigs. Pipp could return to the line-up the next day when he was feeling better. At least, that was the plan. The kid who stepped in that fateful day was named Lou Gehrig.

2,130 games later, Gehrig retired to the Hall of Fame after setting the record for the most consecutive starts in the sport’s annals.

His “Ironman” hallmark would stand for more than five decades before Cal RipkenJr. finally topped it. Pipp later joked that he’d taken the two most expensive aspirin in American history.

A similar saga played out in last week’s Rose Bowl. As sportscaster Brent Musburger managed to mention approximately100 times during the course of the broadcast, this year’s game was the one-hundredth edition of the New Year’s classic, which traditionally pits a representative of the Big Ten Conference against one from the Pac-12.

The centennial competition featured the Big Ten champion Spartans of Michigan State against the Pac-12 winner, the Stanford Cardinal — the team that had also won last year’s Rose Bowl.

When State last went to the big game in 1988, none of the school’s current players had been born and the Big Ten as a conference had managed to capture only one Rose Bowl title since 2000. Not surprisingly, Stanford entered the contest as a 7-point favorite.      

Adding to State’s pregame woes was Coach Mark Dantonio’s decision to suspend his starting middle linebacker, senior Max Bullough. Though the coach declined to specify Bullough’s infraction, he must have felt it was serious enough to justify forfeiting the services of his defensive field general before the team’s biggest game in 26 years. In place of Bullough, Dantonio inserted Kyler Elsworth, a fellow senior making his first start.

In the event, Elsworth acquitted himself admirably. He topped off a tenacious and inspired performance by making the dramatic, game-winning tackle. 

Stanford trailed 24 – 20 but was driving with 1:46 left to play. On fourth-and-one near midfield, the Cardinal elected to attack the middle of the Spartan defense to gain a desperately needed first down.

As the Associated Press reports, “…Elsworth, a fill-in starter … hurdled the pile to deliver an electrifying, head-on hit to [Stanford] fullback Ryan Hewitt while his teammates helped out below.” Having denied Stanford the critical one-yard gain, State took possession of the ball on downs and ran out the clock. Elsworth was named the game’s defensive MVP.

Aside from diversion, sports occasionally provide the audience with a morality play of sorts. The lesson here would seem to be that nobody is bigger than the game. 

Triumph of underling

St. Louis fans may recall the Rams’ 1999 season appeared to be over before it started when the team’s high-priced, free agent quarterback, Trent Green, went down in an exhibition match. The situation was hopeless — until an unknown former grocery clerk named Kurt Warner came off the bench to lead the franchise to its only Super Bowl championship.

I’ve never been one to confuse athletic excellence with moral worth but sports are a part of life and as such, can sometimes provide insight that’s applicable beyond the narrow confines of the playing field. It’s always refreshing to see a hard-working, unheralded underling triumph over long odds.

The flip side of that coin, however, is the humbling recognition that none of us are irreplaceable. Last year, for instance, the pope quit. That sort of thing doesn’t very often, and it understandably raised quite a stir when it was announced. His replacement was just named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year’.

The fundamental paradox of the human plight is that we know we’re not individually all that crucial — we’re mortal, after all — but we each play the central character of our own story. Nobody’s bigger than the game, but we can only see the game through our own eyes, which is a perspective that tends to distort our sense of personal significance.

We’re thus torn between the need to feel important and the knowledge that someone will inevitably take our place. Perhaps that’s what Satchel Paige was talking about when he counseled, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.