From the Cheap Seats

Our beloved and emotional Midwestern scribe has emerged from his hibernation, with the approaching end of the Stanford Basketball season. You see, he has a particularly heartfelt farewell to offer to an inspiring Cardinal senior - a player he compares to one of the school's all-time sports legends. Chris Hernandez has been many things for Stanford, which may be best described together as a "gamer"...


I do not want to write this column.

That is unusual.  These occasional missives are almost always a welcome break from the grind of work.  They give me the chance to spend a few hours concentrating on something I really enjoy - Stanford sports.  They are a bit of work, but they are usually a lot of fun, too.  But I do not want to write this one.  For several reasons.

First, I am too darn busy right now to take time away from what I am supposed to be doing to write this.  It is not an accident that you have seen no contributions from yours truly around here for several months.  I used to post regularly here, but now I merely lurk.  Mike Eubanks is probably considering demoting me back to "recruit" status.  Given work that I ought to be doing right now, I really should not be doing this.  [Please promise not to tell either of my bosses (the one at the office or the one at home), okay?]

Second, although the topic of this column has been nagging at me for a while, I cannot find the right theme for it.  As a volunteer in these parts, I have a luxury Mike does not enjoy.  I never have to write anything.  Instead, if some aspect of Stanford sports tumbles around inside my head (or heart), I let that basic idea tumble until I come up with some theme to use as a vehicle to express it.  The topic I am going to be writing about here has been tumbling for quite a while now, but I have not come up with a theme.  Perhaps it is because I want to repress this little bugger of a thought.  But it keeps fighting its way back into my consciousness.  So here I am, sans theme.

Third, I try to avoid writing about one athlete.  I like team sports, and it is my view that too much attention is paid in the sports world these days to individuals, instead of teams.  Yet, here I am, violating my own principles.

Fourth (directly related to "third"), as someone who is both a parent and a teacher, I try to resist having favorites.  With only very rare exceptions, I love anybody who plays sports for Stanford.  Even though the only shirts I have ever owned with the word "Stanford" on them are shirts that I paid for, I feel like I have a bond with anyone who was given a jersey with that special word on it.  As sports fans, we believe that any of "our" athletes are part of our extended families.  And we want everyone in our family to know that we love them.

Each member of the group we are about to lose from the men's basketball team occupies a special place in our family.  We love Matt Haryasz' fire and production, Dan Grunfeld's guts and creativity, and Jason Haas' perseverance and positive attitude.  Each of them has battled considerable adversity in his career.  I apologize to each of them for focusing this particular column on someone else.

Fifth, there is just no way for me to cover this topic without getting sappy.  As several of you have correctly pointed out, I am way over my sap quota around here.  So I try my darndest to avoid adding more sap.  Best to stay away from this particular topic.

For a while, I thought those were the reasons I did not want to write this column.  This morning, on what passes for a "run" in my world, I realized that, although each of these five reasons was sufficient to justify a decision to not write this, none of them was the real reason.  In a flurry of honesty, I hereby reveal my real reason for not wanting to write this column: I do not want to write this... because writing this means saying goodbye to one of my favorite Stanford athletes ever.

As you might guess, I hate saying goodbye.  But this particular goodbye is going to be especially tough.

Like others here, I like Stanford athletes with "q & a," with eye popping statistics, and with limitless skill.  But I really love the gamers.  The ones who fight and scratch and claw when Stanford is behind.  Who really care, and are not afraid to show it.  Who relish the steep odds faced by Stanford teams.  Who figure out some way - any way - for Stanford to win or, failing that, to give us our best chance of winning.

Stanford has been, and is, blessed with a whole lot of gamers.  A very incomplete list, just off the top of my head, would include: Babatunde Oshinowo, who endured Navy's relentless cut blocks with "just prop me up and I will get after them" drive; Troy Walters, who refused to be denied his right to play in the Rose Bowl despite an injury that should have sidelined him; Ryan Garko, who seemed to bail out his team with key hits in game after game; Leah Nelson and Michelle Smith, who seem to know when to blast softballs out of parks; and Brooke Smith, who doggedly runs the floor to become a factor on offense AND defense.

But the single athlete Chris Hernandez reminds me of the most is John Elway.  Admittedly, Chris does not have Sir John's unparalleled athletic ability.  But he does share his drive and his ability to will his team to win when the chips are down.  [The two of them also share a rather aggravating tendency to lose a bit of concentration when their teams are ahead.  That seems to go with the territory, though.  The real gamers are not that interested in trying to double a 14-point lead, and they are often not their best at the start, or in the middle, of games.  Get their team down, though, and they focus really well.]

Both Elway and Hernandez, it should be noted, displayed considerable grit by fighting through injuries and chronic ailments.  Neither of them succeeded on every desperate comeback they launched, of course.  But when you rooted for a team with John Elway or Chris Hernandez on it, you always thought you had a chance, even when all common sense would tell you that you did not.  They did not always manage to get it done, but they got it done often enough that you always had some hope that they would indeed get it done "this time."

How many times has Chris provided the catalyst for bringing his team back from the brink of disaster (or, at least, almost back)?  How many times has he turned to his teammates, said "follow me guys," then charged up San Juan Hill amid enemy gunfire?  More than I can remember.  Put it this way: How happy are the citizens of Oregon to finally see him go?

Or put it this way.  Your team is down three with only a fraction of a second left in the game.  You get to choose anybody in the country to shoot three free throws.  Who are you putting at the line?  I'll take Chris Hernandez, thank you.  See you in overtime.

Sadly, the gamers never have quite as much success as we want them to have.  [For example, we said goodbye to Ryan Garko at the end of a drubbing in the CWS championship game.]  Certainly the current basketball season has not been what all of us, especially the basketball players, wanted it to be.  But there has been magic in Chris' Stanford career, too.  Though it did not end well, the 2003-04 season was still one for the ages.

In the end, as I tell my kids and my students, you cannot control outcomes.  But you can control effort.  The true measure of a man is not in how many times he wins, but in how hard he tried to win.  Nobody fought harder to get Stanford to victory than Chris Hernandez.  We will long remember the glare in his eyes when the game was on the line.

Although it does not make up for writing a column with no theme, allow me to at least reference a movie scene that sums up my feelings.  For a sentimental old fool like me, one of the more powerful "goodbye" movie scenes comes near the end of The Wizard of Oz, just before Dorothy leaves Oz and returns to Kansas.  After the good witch, Glinda, tells Dorothy that she can return home just by clicking her ruby slippers together, Dorothy is at first excited about getting back to her home and family.  Then she realizes that "it's going to be so hard to say goodbye" to the friends she met in Oz, because "I love you all, too."  She kisses the Tin Man and the Lion (her Matt, Dan, and Jason) on the cheek, lingering with each long enough to remind them of details from their journey and tell them how much she is going to miss them.

Then she turns to the friend she met first in Oz, the one she had been through the most scrapes with during their exciting and tortured journey - the Scarecrow.  For the Scarecrow, she can only manage to choke out one short phrase.  As the end of a journey through college basketball that has been both exciting and tortured nears for Chris Hernandez, I echo Dorothy's short goodbye to the Scarecrow:

"I think I'll miss you most of all."

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