by Glenn Arnold

Record books are useless. All I can find in them are numbers.

If you want to find the greatest achievements in sports, the record books will do just fine. Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games played. The 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a game. But if you’re looking for greatness in sports, the record books are simply guides. The records that the highest-level athletes have accomplished are certainly noteworthy, but that’s not what sports are about.

As any Soccer Mom or Soccer Dad will tell you, the most important part of sports lies in sportsmanship. It’s not whether you win or lose, son… Yet, somewhere along the path from child to high-schooler to amateur to professional, sportsmanship often fades into the background. But if you look carefully at the superior individuals, at the amazing records, at the unforgettable events, you’ll see that all of them have a beautiful streak of honor and respect between competitors; the best of sports can be found when players tip their caps to each other. Figuratively and literally. These are the moments that give sports its true power.

“It’s Important To Tell Her My Opinion”
When Annika Sorenstam missed that short putt on the 12th hole, we knew it was over. With that putt, Annika dropped to 5 over for the tournament and her improbable run in the Colonial was all but done. Like many of the other record 1.5 million USA Network viewers, I turned off my TV. The sports event of the year was about to turn back into another exciting weekend of repetitive pars, little-known golfers, and sleep-inducing commentary. Time to see what was in the fridge.

Yet something made me turn the TV back on. Something that had very little to do with a woman playing on a man’s tour: I wanted see how her two playing partners–Aaron Barber and Dean Wilson–were going to congratulate Annika after they all finished the 18th hole. I was rewarded when Annika hugged both players as they undoubtedly offered her their praise and pride. Sappy? Alright, maybe. A great moment in sports? Definitely.

“It’s important to tell her my opinion,” said golfer Jeff Sluman. “I think most of the guys — like myself — when she announced this, there was a little skepticism in how she was going to play. She won me over 110 percent like I think she did almost everybody on our tour.” Sluman was hardly alone in his kudos for Annika Sorenstam. Said Dan Forsman, who was one shot off the lead after the first round: “Give her congrats for the way she played. [Some people] will say she’s just nothing but class. And frankly, I’m in that camp.” Egos? Where? These guys are professional athletes. They’re supposed to be aloof and self-centered. When athletes start using words such as “proud” and “class”–and meaning every bit of those words–you can’t help but have the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. And professional golfers are so competitive that they’d kick their mother just to gain a stroke. Competition is what lured all of us to watch Annika versus The Men, and it will be the respect of her fellow golfers that we’ll always remember.

“Walking With Me”
The summer of 1998 brought us one of the most memorable head-to-head competitions we’ve ever seen. The Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa were slamming home runs at an unfathomable rate. Not only were they chasing Roger Maris’ hallowed record of 61 home runs in a season, but McGwire and Sosa were also trying to be the first one to break that record. McGwire would hit an upper-deck shot one afternoon and then Sosa would follow with two bombs of his own later that night. It was like they were playing on their own private Little League field with the fences being 100 feet away.

Finally, on September 8th, McGwire hit number 62. And guess whom that historic homer came against? The Cubs. After McGwire rounded the bases and was mobbed by his teammates, a smiling Sosa trotted in from his spot in right field to offer his own unique congratulations to McGwire. And that finger-kiss, heart-pound, point-at-the-sky ritual of Sosa’s was the next day’s lead photo in all the newspapers–because McGwire did the routine with him. Who would remember whom the Cardinals were playing against if it weren’t for McGwire and Sosa celebrating together on the field?

The moment as piece of history certainly wasn’t lost on McGwire. The Maris family, who were at the stadium for the occasion, obviously had mixed emotions about the record-breaking home run. In a classy move after his on-field celebration, McGwire climbed into the stands to hug members of Maris family; McGwire, who had said that the now-deceased Maris was “watching and walking with me”, paid his respects to the family of a man he had never met. With that amazing gesture, he won them–and us–over.

“You Have To Compliment Them”
Game 7 of the 2003 Conference Semifinals. The Minnesota Wild versus the Vancouver Canucks. After this game, one team will go to the Stanley Cup Conference Finals and one team will go home. With the score tied 2-2 with just over five minutes left in the game, Darby Hendrickson sends a blistering slapshot under goalie Dan Cloutier’s glove to score the game-winning goal. It’s the Canucks who will be out on the golf course the following week.

“We played our best game tonight of this series and they found a way to win,” Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. “You have to compliment them for finding a way to win and wish them well as they move forward.” Respectful even in the face of a long and empty off-season.

Then, at the end of the game, both teams skate out to center ice and form a sort of receiving line to offer their congratulations and condolences to each other. After eighty-two games, lost front teeth, numerous cross-checks into the boards, and a hard-fought final game, the Wild and the Canucks keep it all inside–both joy and anguish–to acknowledge their opponents.

As a professional athlete, one of the hardest things must be to watch an opposing team celebrate a playoff victory over your team. The season is over and the team that knocked you out is now happily skating all over the rink like a crazed monkeys. And what happens next? You have to shake your opponents’ hand. Each opposing player’s hand. Tough? Of course, but it’s one of the best traditions in sports. And it’s truly the definition of sportsmanship.

“We Shared Something Special”
Almost five hours after they began, Andy Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui finally completed their grueling match at this year’s Australian Open. The final line went something like this: 4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 143-141. Halfway through the two-hour twenty-three minute final set, the two players stopped and decided to let the ball boys hit around for a few minutes–just so they could get a quick rest. Needless to say, both knew that they were in the middle of one of the greatest matches in Australian Open history.

During that final set, something rarely seen on a professional level began happening: The players actually started complimenting each other on nice shots. “My respect level for him just grew and grew through the match,” said Roddick. “We could see each other 10 years down the line and know we shared something special.” Ten years from now, both of them still might be sleeping it off.

Finally, mercifully, Roddick won the fifth set 21-19. And afterwards, Roddick and El Aynaoui did the customary embrace across the net and then Roddick promptly sat down with a look of awe and exhaustion on his face. Finally, in an unusual show of appreciation for each other, the two players joined hands, took a deep bow together towards the stands, and walked off the court–still hand in hand. “Younes is a class act and I’m truly humbled by this victory,” said Roddick.

If there was ever a time when a victory was inconsequential, this was it. As El Aynaoui said after the match, “Even if I lost, I’m happy.” Both had earned a lifelong respect for each other.

So as you read through the record books, look deep into the female golfer playing in a men’s tournament, deep into the single-season home run record, deep into the final game of a hockey playoff series, and deep into a record-setting tennis match. There–beyond the numbers and the statistics–you will find the very core of sports. Quite simply, it’s all a matter of respect.