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Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Updated: January 23, 12:16 PM ET
 



WHO HAS SEEN HIS (OR HER) REPUTATION CHANGED THE MOST IN THE PAST YEAR?


The recent drama of Peyton Manning, from playoff choker to playoff superstar back to playoff choker, got us wondering about reputations and how they can quickly change.

The revolving door of athlete reputations | From Patrick Hruby

To the list of life's everlastingly fragile entities -- a butterfly's wings, ceramic plates, Michael Jackson's nose -- add athletic reputations. No double-digit lead can evaporate so quickly; no worst-to-first turnaround can occur so surprisingly; no ACL can rupture so completely as a sports star's fair (or ill) repute. Yesterday's mastermind is today's pea-brain. Today's clubhouse leader is tomorrow's cap casualty. Sports reps bubble and burst like tech stocks, now overpriced, now undervalued, as much a reflection on our own biases, ignorance and irrational exuberance as the essential character of the principals involved. Which we hardly know, anyway.

Scenes from a bull market: Peyton Manning, Quarterback in Full, pegged for Montana-like greatness -- and then some -- off the strength of two outstanding playoff games. The Philadelphia Eagles, a never-say-die group that always finds a way to win. Jeffrey Loria, carpetbagging vampire, sucking the lifeblood from two MLB franchises.

Too simplistic? Too overwrought? Too good -- too bad -- to be true? Send in the bears. The Eagles choked. Loria's a decent sort. Peyton couldn't win the big one at UT, either. So it goes. You're either a hero or a heel, a bully or a victim, offensive or misunderstood. By nature, sports are a winner-take-all proposition, a binary way of boxing up the world. Athletic reps simply follow suit, in the manner of a light switch flipping up and down.

Take Kobe Bryant. Not since O.J. Simpson has an athlete endured such a remarkable perception shift. We knew Bryant as a smiling pitchman. A focused competitor. A gifted prodigy, mature beyond his years. In a single night, all of that changed. Six months on, he's aloof, immature, unfaithful -- and potentially dangerous. Even if he's exonerated, he'll never be viewed in quite the same light. LeBron does Sprite commercials now.

A wise individual -- probably John Wooden; possibly a Successories poster -- once said that sports do not build character, but rather reveal it. Left unsaid was this: If reputations are so ephemeral, then what sort of character, exactly, are we talking about? Flip the switch. Take in the room. Did Kobe change, or did we?

Easy choice ... | From Ralph Wiley

I don't know, His Hrudeness, but in the meantime, whatever happened to my would-be adopted son, (Prince of) Darko Milicic?

Signed
Prince of Darkness

The real world | From Robert Lipsyte

Perfect pitch, Patrick, way to go. Since we don't really know these celebrity athletes -- even the sportswriters who cover them regularly judge them mainly as quote machines -- we are always shocked when they fail or come up dirty. But some part of us likes that as much as we liked the heroics. Call it the adore/envy/discard cycle. Pete Rose hasn't changed and we haven't changed, it's just time to give him the hook -- he's become boring and one note. People who knew Kobe were always saying he was selfish, immature, mean; I didn't pay attention until that concierge had some other adjectives. Peyton is dragging some baggage from a UT lawsuit filed by a female trainer; if he messed up a Super Bowl that would resurface and his stock would really tank.

The same way sex tourists in Bangkok rent children because they think they're clean, we fix on the LeBrons, the Freddy Adus, the Wies, until they grow into real people, too, and give us a reason to move on. The only one that bothers me lately is Ted Williams, that spiky, independent, bat genius. I thought he would escape the cycle because he didn't care. So what happened? His own family managed to make a late-night joke out of him, a chilling tale, and being laughed at is worse than being prosecuted because the chances are your stock will never get back on the market.

Yankee fans: Arrogant to soft | From David Schoenfield

I used to think of Yankee fans as arrogant jerks, the kind who throw batteries and rotten apples at opposing center fielders, who yell eighth-grade sexual references to the right fielder and who walk around with their chests puffed out and their Yankee "26 World Series titles" wrist watches and their cocky Reggie Jackson attitudes.

But then I sat in the bleachers for the first time ever and the only fight I saw was a girl who walked out on her loser Yankee-fan boyfriend.

And then the Yankees went another year without winning the World Series -- losing to a bunch kids most of their not-as-knowledgeable-as-they-think fans had even heard of.

And then Andy Pettitte left.

And then Roger Clemens unretired.

And, now those Yankee fans, who believed pinstripes were something special, that players actually wanted to play for the Yankees and soak in the history of Babe, Mick and all the rest, realize that was really all just a bunch of B.S. Andy Pettitte doesn't care about the Yankees and Roger Clemens sure as hell never did.

And now I think of Yankees fans just as a pathetic, whiny bunch with slumped shoulders, no longer arrogant, trying to grasp their new reality: they really are just another team -- albeit one with a $200 million payroll.

Nice try, Schoenfield | From Robert Lipsyte

Glad you're feeling better about yourself, David, especially pleased that it was The Only Team Worth Rooting For that boosted your self-esteem, even if it all came out of a fantasy. Yankee fans are not arrogant (arrogance was invented at Harvard by the literati) and those bleacher-creature jerks at Yankee Stadium are merely proof that not all Bomber fans are bank presidents. We have bank robbers, too, as well as whiney guys like you used to be before realizing that the flip side of loving the Yankees is hating them, which is basically pretty much the same thing.

Kobe's redemption | From Eric Neel

Hrude, if you're right that the switch flips in us and not the athletes (and I do think you're right), then the Kobe turnaround I want to talk about is the one yet to come. By most accounts he's a good bet to win the case this summer, and then comes the inevitable redemption plot. More sacred and stirring than all others, including the downfall plot, the redemption plot will not be denied. It makes us feel grand and magnanimous, it justifies our judgments by writing them out in the ink of forgiveness, and most importantly, it gives us permission to get back to the business of watching games with clear, unclouded hearts (which, you know, we're gonna do anyway).

Three coaches | From Melanie Jackson

Nomar Garciaparra's stock is on the rise. Sure, he suffered through that hitting slump in the ALCS. Then the Red Sox openly flirted with another shortstop, and his own teammate, Kevin Millar, dissed him when he said he'd rather play with Alex Rodriguez. And in the very near future, Garciaparra might even end up on the trade block again.

But hey -- if he's good enough for Mia Hamm ...

Seriously, though, three coaches caught my eye in 2003. First, April Heinrich's reputation took a beating (I know, here I am again talking about soccer). Losing in the Olympics is one thing. But to lose in the Women's World Cup on American soil with a roster that took a lot of criticism seemed to make the whole month of October April Fool's Day.

Bill Laimbeer, on the other hand, proved he was more than the big-mouthed Bad Boy everybody loved to hate. As coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, he became the guy who pretty much single-handedly saved the Shock franchise, which was on the brink of moving or folding before he was hired. He took a team that had lost 23 games the year before to a league-best 25 regular-season victories. Then Laimbeer and his Bad Girls denied Michael Cooper and the L.A. Sparks a threepeat.

And lastly, the Nebraska hire notwithstanding, everybody knows how bad Bill Callahan did in the Bay Area this past season with the Raiders. He's not the only NFL coach whose players have wanted to wrap their hands around his throat in the locker room. But Callahan was so bad even Tim Brown had to break his silence.