WHICH ATHLETES COULD USE A VISIT FROM THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST?

The holiday season is here again which means countless adaptations of the wildly popular “A Christmas Carol”, the 1843 novella written by Charles Dickens, are broadcast all over the world.

Last week, I caught my favorite film version of the classic story on television (1970 – “Scrooge” with Albert Finney) and I was reminded why this timeless tale endures.

While Dickens used the supernatural to compel his curmudgeonly cranky Scrooge character into reflection and which ultimately led to his empathy for others, the core narrative of “Carol” is about transformation, redemption and reconnection.

Essentially, Scrooge is transformed by looking back on his life.  The result is that he reconnects to people around him, works hard to redeem himself, and he does the right thing.

This theory can easily be applied to sports.

For instance, it occurred to me that several professional athletes in the middle/end of their careers could benefit from taking a look back before going forward.

LeBron James provides the perfect example of an athlete who did this.

After playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers from 2003-10, James made The Decision to sign with the Miami Heat as a free agent.  His goal at the time was to join Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade to “win” championships.  (Up to that point, the Cavaliers had never won the NBA Finals in their 40 years as a franchise.)

James’s move from Cleveland drew major ire from the press, fans and particularly from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert who wrote a public letter to the city in which he lamented that James “deserted” them, was “narcissistic” & “disloyal” and that the city didn’t deserve “this cowardly betrayal”.

For his criticism(s) of James, Gilbert was fined heavily by the NBA and has since admitted regret.  But, many Cleveland fans espoused Gilbert for his raw outpouring of emotion and joined him by burning James’s No. 23 jersey, stomping on cardboard cutouts of his likeness and booed him whenever he was in town.

In the year that followed, fans from other NBA cities joined in the booing and James came to be seen as a “villain” of sorts around the league, a role which LeBron admits he took part in playing as a “coping mechanism” during his rocky transition to Miami.

Then the wins came.  In back to back seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13), James and the Heat won the NBA Finals and he took home the MVP award both years.

Sometime after the 2013-14 season, when Miami failed to win a “three-peat”, James decided to opt out of his contract, mend ways with Gilbert, and go back to Cleveland.

He publicly announced his decision in a July 2014 letter that read: “I’m Coming Home”.  He said, “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

He also said he couldn’t promise a championship, but he wanted to try and bring one home for Cleveland.  And, that he did during the 2015-16 season.  Cleveland finally had their dream NBA finals win and the Cavaliers did it in fairy tale fashion.

After being down 1 games to 3 to the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland came back to win the last 3 games for the championship.  Later, LeBron cried like a baby and he said his emotions poured out for the fans and all the people that supported him over the years in Cleveland.

Whatever happened between 2010-2014 is all but a distant memory now.  James has become a hero once again because (1) he came back to Cleveland and (2) he brought home the Win.

In a sense, like “A Christmas Carol”, LeBron James has become transformed, he redeemed himself and has reconnected with his homeland.

Yet, he doesn’t stop looking back on the past.

In the Sports Illustrated Dec 1 article in which they reveal why they picked James to be their 2016 Sportsperson of the Year, they describe a regular after-hours ritual or “tour” that James and his wife take, about every 6 months.  They leave their mansion late at night, drive to the old neighborhood and just cruise around, remembering and reflecting on James’s tough inner city childhood.

He admitted that he had some bad memories there particularly when he lived in the projects.   He said, “it was survival”.  But he also reminisced about the good times too and the people who were kind and charitable to him.

Collectively, those memories drive LeBron and continue to inspire him every day.  They are also what made him come back and do the right thing. He said: “Life is a like a book and I think you have to go back and read your book sometimes, to learn from it.  Maybe I’m at Chapter 8 right now, but you can’t sit down and start reading a book at Chapter 8.  You have to go back to Chapter 1.”

Another athlete to have had a similar redemption in 2016 (but on a smaller scale) is former Yankees 3B/DH Alex Rodriguez (“ARod”).

Rodriguez played 22 seasons in MLB with the Mariners, Rangers and Yankees.  Considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time, he has amassed an impressive bounty of statistics and broke the all-time record for highest paid player twice.

However, he also has an illustrious past history with steroids.  He’s been busted twice, got caught lying about using them at least twice, and incurred the longest suspension levied by MLB for PED use on a player ever.

The word “disgraced” was used to describe him and many thought his career would be over in 2014 after he was suspended the entire season.

ARod’s Steroid Timeline:

  • Dec 2007 – The Mitchell Report comes out and names nearly 100 players as PED users. Rodriguez is not one of them, but former player Jose Canseco says ARod uses.
  • Dec 2007 – Rodriguez tells Katie Couric on “60 Minutes” that he never used PEDs.
  • Feb 2009 – Sports Illustrated reports that Rodriguez tested positive in 2003. He admits it, but says it was only from 2001-2003 and has ceased.
  • Feb 2010 – The New York Times reported that Rodriguez received treatment from a Canadian sports doctor (Anthony Galea) in March 2009. Galea reached a plea agreement for bringing HGH into the US.  He confirmed treating ARod previously, but only with anti-inflammatories.
  • Jan 2013 – Rodriguez is linked to Anthony Bosch (Biogenesis). Reports allegedly show ARod was buying PED’s from 2009 through 2012. He denied the report.
  • April 2013 – Sources reveal ARod purchased evidence related to Miami clinic.
  • Aug 2013 – Rodriguez is suspended by MLB for 211 games (through 2014 season). He appealed and went back on the field.
  • Sept 2013 – The appeals process begins. It lasted 53 days.
  • Nov 2013 – ARod storms out of the arbitration hearing calling it “ridiculous” and an “injustice”, among other comments. In an interview with WFAN NY, he said, “I did nothing.”
  • Jan 2014 – Rodriguez is handed down a 162-game suspension plus any postseason games in 2014. He claims he will take the fight to federal court.
  • Feb 2014 – Rodriguez dropped his lawsuit & accepted his suspension for the entire 2014 season.

In Feb 2015, ARod issued a handwritten apology to the fans, the Yankees organization and the baseball community for his past actions.

During Spring Training, he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw and the fans gave him a standing ovation.  It may have been an omen for what was to come, because the 2015 regular season was an amazing comeback year for ARod.  He played in 151 games, had a .250 BA, 33 HRs, and 86 RBIs.

But, 2016 was not a good statistical year for ARod, nor the Yankees.  By August, the team decided to “rebuild” and cut him to make room for younger players in the minors to come up and get experience.  They similarly traded away their best bullpen pitchers (Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller) for prospects and let go of All Star Carlos Beltran and starting pitcher Ivan Nova.

Rodriguez accepted the Yankees’ decision gracefully and agreed to come back as a “special adviser”.  And, he publicly said “goodbye” to the fans and his teammates at a press conference in Aug 2016.  During the post season, he appeared on FOX Sports/FS1 as an analyst and aced the job.

What is most interesting about Rodriguez after his suspension in 2014 was how he seemed to come back at peace.

Starting with the letter of contrition to the fans, he seemed to put the past behind him, settled down, and played well without steroids flowing through his veins.  He also managed to say all the right things, acted humbly, kept out of trouble and went away quietly when the Yankees asked him to.

It’s clear that ARod had time to reflect on his life while he was suspended, became transformed, tried to redeem himself and reconnected with the fans.

And, even more than LeBron, Rodriguez’s story is similar to “Carol” in that he was forced into submission like Scrooge.  Well, James was also forced to reflect on his decision(s), because he felt the wrath of the disgruntled NBA fans.  But, he was free to play and live life and come to his own conclusions.

ARod has had to take a long look at himself in the mirror.  The time away was good for him and ultimately, will be good for his legacy because he ended his career doing the right thing.

So what other players could benefit from this kind of reflection and transformation?

  • Tony Romo. The 36-year-old QB is on his journey to transformation already.  By conceding the starting job to Dak Prescott after his injury this season, that was a big step towards changing direction in his career.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this NFL player, but a change in teams would probably be the best path for him to go, if he doesn’t retire.
  • Odell Beckham, Jr. I won’t go into a long diatribe about his weird behaviors.  We all know about his crying on the sidelines, rants, run-ins with counterparts on the field (and the kicking net), and all of his other disruptive actions.  If it wasn’t for all of that talent… When the season is over and if the Giants fail to make the playoffs, he’s the perfect candidate to reassess the manner by which he conducted himself on the field and determine if he should continue to risk success for quick emotional outbursts.
  • Matt Harvey – This 27-year-old Mets ace is a fascinating character. There is no denying his arm talent and how he can be impactful to a franchise on the verge of breaking through to another World Series.  But, the way in which he handles himself with the media needs tweaking.  Frustration and high expectations can combine into a cocktail of bad decision-making and Harvey has been feeding into this equation for the past couple of years. He should try to channel his childhood idol, Derek Jeter before he returns from injuries.

Any other suggestions?

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