I’ve been following sports for as long as I can remember but until this year, that connection was limited to watching games on TV, playing video game simulations, and tracking statistics. The closest connection I had was playing sports myself and to professional sports, watching from the stands. Though I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the history and current state of the sports world, I never before had the inside access to professional sports that interning for the Rockland Boulders would give me.
Before the 2016 season, I’d attended plenty of Boulders’ games since they’re the only pro sports team that plays in my home county of Rockland. It’s a lot more convenient than spending the time and price required to go see a game at Citi Field or Yankee Stadium, as much as I love visiting those stadiums. The Boulders belong to the Canadian-American Association (Can-Am League), an independent minor league consisting of three teams each from Canada and the northeastern United States. Their home field, Palisades Credit Union Park, is as beautiful a stadium as you’ll find in minor league baseball, distinguishable by its unique short porch in right field and Rockland’s own version of the Green Monster in center.
The best part of interning for the Boulders was having the feeling as though I was a part of the team. Following a team for an entire season, and spending a great deal of time during games right next to the dugout, is a different sort of dynamic than watching from afar. I, along with the other interns who were able to stay until or near the end of the season, were able to appreciate being a part of a championship run and what it meant to get to that point.
The intensity level was incredible towards the end of the season, when the Boulders were chasing that Can-Am League title, which would have been their second. Unfortunately, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but Rockland did reach the final and deciding game of the season, which is a big accomplishment. This was despite some injuries to key players and two of the team’s top starting pitchers having their contracts purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks. On top of that, the Boulders found themselves on the brink of elimination multiple times. In the first playoff round, Rockland fell behind two games to none against the Quebec Capitales in a best-of-five series, but battled back to sweep the next three at home in dramatic fashion. In two of those three games, the Boulders lost leads late, only to win on walk-offs. The first of those was an epic 16-15 slugfest in which the Boulders led going into the ninth, gave it up, and then won it on a walk-off home run. Two days later in a do or die Game 5, third baseman Mike Fransoso drilled a 9th inning one-out hit into the right center field gap to win the series and advance into the championship round, upon which the whole ballpark went nuts. I’ve witnessed countless walk-off hits, game winning drives, and buzzer beating shots over the years, but those amazing postseason comebacks will forever be engrained as some of my favorite sports memories.
Being at Palisades Credit Union Park every day had a lot of added perks to it. One of the cool things about minor league baseball is that the really good organizations go the extra mile to enhance the fan experience and add extra entertainment value to the game. In the middle of the season, world-renowned aerialist Nik Wallenda high-wire walked across the stadium, and I had the honor of helping support the wire. We also had guest appearances by famous sports figures like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Bruce Harper, and Sgt. Slaughter. In small minor league ballparks, the fans often get a chance to meet and greet these stars.
Of course, one of the staples of the Rockland Boulders’ fan experience is the Bread Race, run at the end of the fifth inning every game. It’s similar to the mascot races done by teams like the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers, but the crazy, random things that often happen to the mascots in the middle of a race keep it interesting each game. These include, but are not limited to, getting attacked by Godzilla, stuck with a lightsaber, or clotheslined at the finish line.
From a baseball sense, I got to witness my fair share of special games, like when teams from Japan and Cuba came to Rockland. The Japanese players comprised an all-star team from the independent Shikoku Island League Plus, and as someone who is fascinated with different cultures from around the world, it was a wonderful experience to witness my first international baseball game.
When the Cuban National Team came to Rockland it was special not only on a Cam-Am level, but also for baseball on a national level. As the United States and Cuba only recently improved relations with each other, this series marked the first time the Cuban National Team came to the United States since they played exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. The stadium was packed for all three games, which provided a great opportunity to draw attention to the Boulders both locally and nationally.
Above all, working at the ballpark helped me view sports in a whole different light. It’s easy to root for certain players from a distance, but being around a team makes you realize how much work is put in for athletes to get where they want. What I like about independent baseball is that the vast majority of players have a true passion for the game of baseball. Many are vying for a shot in a big league organization, like Stephen Cardullo, a former Boulder who played for the Colorado Rockies last year. Another notable player who played indy ball in 2015 has become a big league star – Rich Hill. Success stories like those are proof of the talent level present on many independent league ballclubs.
While I didn’t get a ton of chances to speak with the players, there were a few Boulders players and coaches in particular who I’ll always have great respect for, as they would always stop to talk to us interns and showed us a tremendous amount of respect. It might not sound like much, but it’s something I greatly appreciated.
Last season was a truly valuable experience that hopefully can lead to more opportunities like it. Not only did it present a new career option for me, it also gave me so much more insight to the professional sports world, something I’ve been intrigued by since I was born.
The remarkable story of David Ortiz’s incredible final season has gotten me thinking about other athletes who are excelling at an age far past what is normally considered an athlete’s prime. Ortiz deserved the attention he got this year in every way, because what he was able to accomplish in his final season was nothing short of historic. You are probably well aware of Big Papi’s accomplishments by now, and I will be writing another piece dedicated to Ortiz in the near future. For now, here are some other athletes who have been able to sustain a high level of performance in the latter stages of their careers.
“Big Sexy” is the oldest active player in the major leagues, but that didn’t stop him from being named to his fourth all-star team in 2016. Despite winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, it can be argued that the last five seasons have constituted the best stretch of Colon’s career. The former power pitcher has reinvented himself by relying almost solely on his sub-90 MPH fastball, but with as good of command as any pitcher in baseball. And despite the Mets enviable collection of young starting pitchers, it was Colon who ended up being their most durable arm last year.
He’s not close to the player he once was, but at age 42, it’s remarkable that Ichiro was able to hit .291 and provide solid value to the Marlins in a part-time role. Only Pete Rose had more hits in baseball history from age 27 onward.
It may be lost because the Colts do not emphasize running the football much, or maybe because he has been so good for so long, but Frank Gore is still one of the more reliable ball carriers in the NFL. He is currently on pace to become just the fifth running back in NFL history to run for 1,00 yards at age 33 or older, and the first since 1984, when John Riggins ran for 1,239 yards with the Redskins. In fact, there have only been 47 instances where a 30 year-old player has rushed for 1,000 yards (Gore has already done it twice).
Yes, it’s much more common for kickers and punters to stick around a long time, but Vinatieri is truly in a class of his own. Not only is he the oldest and longest tenured player in the NFL, he is the best kicker in football, and maybe the greatest of all-time. This season, Vinatieri broke Mike Vanderjagt’s NFL record by connecting on his 43rd consecutive field goal attempt. Hopefully, being a kicker won’t stop the Hall of Fame voters from giving him the honor he is due. That might be a long ways away, since Vinatieri could probably play another 10 years if he wanted to.
You wouldn’t know it from watching him play, but Brady is 39. Since coming back from his suspension, he has been as good as ever, already eclipsing 1,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games. His passer rating is an otherworldly 133.9. He is showing no signs of slowing down, and should still be among the NFL’s best quarterbacks for years to come.
At age 38, Newman is still a starting cornerback in the NFL, which is extremely rare considering corners need to be among the fastest players on the field. Not only that, but he starts for the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Minnesota Vikings.
The future Basketball Hall of Famer really has nothing left to prove, but he’s still going strong. Although he was not selected for the All-Star Game last year for just the second time since 2001, Dirk still dropped 18.3 points per game while grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game. With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all retired, Nowitzki is one of the last remaining players from the group of greats who debuted in the late 90s.
No list like this would be complete without Jagr, who will turn 45 this NHL season. When Jagr debuted in the NHL in 1990, many of the current active players weren’t born yet. Last season, he scored 66 points for the Panthers, and two weeks ago, joined Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky as the third NHL player to score 750 career goals in a career.
Kerri Walsh Jennings
As one of the greatest volleyball players of all-time, Walsh Jennings was able to capture another Olympic medal in Rio, this time with April Ross as her partner. Although it wasn’t the gold she is accustomed to, Walsh Jennings is still as good a player as any in beach volleyball, and she remains a dominant blocker and hitter nobody wants to go up against.
We’ve become used to Phelps winning nearly every swimming gold medal at the Olympics, so a lot of people may not have realized that before Phelps won five gold medals and one silver in Rio this summer, no swimmer as old as 31 had ever won an individual swimming gold. Phelps won two individual gold medals (although fellow American Anthony Ervin also won gold at age 35, making him now the oldest). While most simmers are done competing in their 30s, nobody really doubts that Phelps could return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and win some more if he wanted to.
You may not know her name, but if you watched gymnastics in the Olympics, you’ll remember her as the 41 year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan competing against athletes less than half her age. Chusovitina has won two Olympic medals – including a silver in 2008 at age 33. In a sport where most athletes begin to decline in their early 20s, what Chusovitina is doing is truly incredible.
When Michael Phelps was a kid, his dream was to accomplish something that nobody else had ever done before. 28 Olympic medals later, it’s safe to say, he not only achieved that goal, but went way beyond it in a way nobody could have foreseen when he competed in his first Olympic games in 2000.
There’s no need to convince anyone of the magnitude of Phelps’ swimming accomplishments because he has positioned himself in a class far ahead of any swimmer in history. If it wasn’t already evident after the 2012 London Olympics, this year’s Rio games put to rest any doubt that Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all-time and the greatest Olympian of all-time. It’s part of why Phelps decided to come out of retirement to participate in Rio de Janeiro – so that he could leave the sport without any doubt or regrets.
Taking Michael Phelps’ incredible resume a step further, I would argue that he is not only the greatest Olympian, but the best and most dominant athlete who ever lived. Here’s a quick overview of just how dominant he has been. His record of 28 Olympic medals is ten more than any other Olympic athlete. Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina is second with 18. Of Phelps’ 28 medals, 23 of them are gold, while no other Olympian has more than nine. The most incredible stat of all may be this one – if Michael Phelps were his own country, he would have the third most swimming gold medals of any nation in the world. Only the rest of the United States and Australia have won more.
Plenty of athletes have been nearly unbeatable in their respective sports for periods of time, but what sets Phelps’ legacy apart is his longevity and sustained excellence. Age 31 is old for a swimmer, and while a number of swimmers are still able to compete at a high level into their 30s, to still be the best in the world at that age is quite unprecedented. In Rio, Phelps became the oldest swimmer to win gold in an any individual event (although fellow American Anthony Ervin took this record from him shortly after at age 35). Many swimmers stop swimming competitively in their 20s, and although Phelps says he’s retiring, it’s easy to think he could take home a few more medals in the 2020 Tokyo games if he really wanted to.
If this is it for Phelps, he has certainly left his mark on the next generation of swimmers. The majority of his teammates and competitors are people who are young enough that they grew up idolizing him. Among this group is 19 year-old phenom Katie Ledecky.
Like Phelps, Ledecky resides in Maryland, and also began her Olympic career as a 15 year old, when she won a gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle in London. By adding four more golds and one silver to her resume in Rio, Ledecky is now well on track to take over Phelps’ crown as the most dominant swimmer in the world as she sets her sights on Tokyo in 2020. After her performance in this year’s games, there are now only seven swimmers in history who have won more total gold medals than Ledecky. Remember, she’s only 19.
It wasn’t just talent that got Ledecky to this point. It’s was her drive and determination from a young age that made her one of the best athletes in the world. As for the secret to her success, she says, “The secret is there is no secret. I’m enjoying what I’m doing and it’s just putting in the work.” When she broke her arm in the fourth grade playing basketball, she took off her cast and put a bag over her arm instead so that she could continue swimming.
What’s also remarkable about Ledecky is not only the fact that she’s never lost an individual race in a major international tournament in her life, but her ability to excel at every race length and the margin of victory by which she wins by.
So as USA Swimming bids farewell to one legendary Olympic champion in 2016, the nation also got to witness the breakthrough of another champion creating her own legacy. We can only assume she will be giving swimming fans plenty to look forward to for many years to come.
The Olympic games always have been about much more than just sports. The games of the 31st Olympiad have begun in Rio de Janeiro, and as you may have heard, they’re underway amid much concern and controversy. But there are still plenty of positive sides to it, and one of the biggest stories this year involves a group of athletes with some incredible backstories.
For the first time, a team of refugees will have their own delegation at the Olympic Games this year. The team features five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one from Ethiopia. These ten contenders will compete under the Olympic flag, and in the event that any of them win a medal, the Olympic anthem will be played. They can’t compete for their home countries since they have fled. However, winning is not nearly as important to these athletes as the journey it took to get to Rio and the perseverance required to make that journey. Nor is it more important than the message they are trying to send to the world.
20 year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini knows all about perseverance. Mardini escaped from her hometown of Damascus during the ongoing war which produced routine bombings. She explains that she would often be training when the roofs of houses were being blown up. She and her sister decided to escape on a boat with 18 other refugees after their house was destroyed.
Suddenly, after leaving Turkey, the boat’s motor failed, forcing the Mardini sisters and two other talented swimmers to attempt a desperate last-chance solution – they tied ropes around themselves and dragged the boat for three and a half hours until they finally reached Greece, saving the lives of all 20 refugees. On Saturday, she competed in the women’s 100-meter butterfly. This Wednesday, she will be competing again, in the women’s 100-meter freestyle.
Every member of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) has overcome unimaginable obstacles to make it to the Olympics. The five South Sudanese athletes all grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where track and field was one of the few things that was able to lift their spirits. Sprinter James Chiengjiek fled his home nation as a teenager in the middle of the Sudanese Civil War. Had he stayed, he would have been at risk of being taken by rebels to become a child soldier. Many of these athletes have been in Kakuma for years, and have done a good amount of their training without shoes. Track and Field runner Anjelina Lohalith moved from South Sudan to Kenya as a child after her entire village was destroyed. If she is able to win big, she wants to build her father a new house. She has not seen her parents since she was six.
Similarly, Popole Misenga has not seen his brothers since he was six. Misenga is a judoka originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has taken asylum in Brazil. He does not know what his brothers look like anymore. At the age of six, Misenga was found wandering a rainforest in hiding for a week following the murder of his mother. Now married with a son, he is grateful for the fact that he was able to relocate and start a new life in Rio in 2013. His goal in the Olympics is “to win a medal and inspire refugees from all over the world. Afterwards, I want to stay in Rio. God has made this a magical place.”
Some of the refugee athletes, however, still wish to go back to the countries they once called their home. Now living in Germany, Yusra Mardini hopes she can one day return to her native Syria, but for the time being, she is hoping that her story will bring awareness to the refugee crisis around the world. Rami Anis, a fellow Syrian swimmer for the Refugee Olympic Team, echoes that idea. “I do hope that by Tokyo 2020 there will be no refugees”, he says. “Nothing is nearer and dearer to my heart than the homeland.”
The Refugee Olympic Team may or may not win any medals, but their participation is proof that the Olympics are about much more than just sports. It’s about bringing people from all around the world together in one place, people who come from all different kinds of circumstances. These ten refugees hope that their determination will shed light on one of the biggest issues today’s world faces, in regards to both the life of refugees and the unrest that is present in many parts of the world. The best moments of the Olympics happen when the entire world can rally around certain athletes, as it is sure to do for these contenders. Hopefully, the day won’t be too far in the future where there won’t be a need for a Refugee Olympic Team.
As he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, Muhammad Ali was maybe as great of an athlete who ever lived. The scope of his boxing accomplishments speaks for themselves – 56 wins in 61 matches and three-time heavyweight champion of the world. But the self-proclaimed “greatest of all-time” was so much more than that. The enormous impact he left outside of the ring may be what he is best remembered for.
Ali’s story is one of triumph, sacrifice, standing up for what he believed in, and activism. Born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, he grew up in the then-segregated state of Kentucky. He developed an interest in boxing after his bike was stolen when he was 12 years old. By the age of 18, he had won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
As great as he was inside the ring, nothing he had accomplished up to that point drew more attention than when he announced he would be converting to Islam, days after his defeat of Sonny Liston to claim his first world heavyweight title. Then in 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, due to his religious beliefs and his opposition to the war in general. He was vilified for this in the United States but stood by his principles despite being sentenced to prison and receiving a ban from boxing. Although both decisions would eventually be overturned, Ali stated that he believed he would never box again. He would not let anything get in the way of his beliefs, even if that meant going to prison and never boxing again.
Though Ali was so heavily scrutinized at times, he was celebrated by many others. To properly understand Muhammad Ali, it’s important to recognize the nature of the era. The 1960s were the decade of political unrest and progressive social movements. In avoiding the draft, Ali did not run away from it but was rather willing to accept the punishment that came with that decision. Additionally, he questioned why he should fight for a country that was unwilling to protect his own rights at home, as Jim Crow laws had only been abolished a couple of years prior and racism was still rampant. He became a symbol of strength and leadership for African Americans and someone they could follow in standing up against the corrupt establishment.
Ali eventually gained the support of the many Americans opposed to the war, as well as people who simply admired his talent, regardless of his political views. He was as polarizing a figure as there could be, always hyping himself up before matches and mastering tactics of trash talk and intimidation. In fact, Ali is considered an early influence in the development of hip-hop, due to his use of rhyme and wit to deliver insults to his competitors.
After his boxing career, Ali frequently participated in charity work and world activism. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan for the Onondaga Nation, was one of the speakers who delivered a eulogy at Ali’s funeral on Friday. He spoke about how Ali strongly advocated for the rights of Native Americans. One example was when he marched into Washington for the Longest Walk, which was a 1978 protest of a bill that would have nullified all treaties that the U.S. Government made with the Native Americans.
Muhammad Ali was more than just a great boxer. He was a national icon and a man who was willing to sacrifice everything for what he saw as the greater good. As great as he was, he knew how to use his fame as a platform to promote the ideas he believed in. It was rare, and still is, for athletes to speak out on political and social issues, but Ali knew he had the type of influence to take a stand.
He was a true showman, with an impeccable ability to draw people into his boxing matches and elicit a response, whether positive or negative. Though he was brash in the ring and made a name for himself through self-promotion and intimidation, his charitable work, activism, and status as an ambassador for world peace after his career showed the true human side of who Ali really was.
Muhammad Ali will live on forever as an inspirational figure who taught us to stand up for our rights and what we believe in. He taught us to be courageous in the face of adversity. After all, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”