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Column: Sport can help lead us down a better path

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Column: Sport can help lead us down a better path

There are times when sports bring out the best in us.

Like Victor Cruz writing a heartfelt message on his cleats, dedicated to a 6-year-old victim of the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

There are times when sports bring out the worst in us.

Not even 72 hours removed from the horror in Newtown, there were racist tweets blasting NBC for pre-empting its regular Sunday night football coverage to show President Obama's speech from that devastated community. One of the tweets apparently was sent by a walk-on player at the University of North Alabama (who quickly became a former player).

Sports, of course, had nothing to do with Adam Lanza's walking into that school and killing 26 people, most of them innocent little kids filled with nothing but hope and wonder and goodness. America needs to come to grips with truly important issues: gun control, mental illness, a violent culture among them.

Yet, we need sports - perhaps more than ever - to help us get started on that path toward being a better nation, a better people, a better world. Maybe, just maybe, in some small way the games we play can show us how to be a little nicer to each other, or at least more respectful.

The athletes can lead the way. Their actions have meaning, now more than ever.

So, instead of ranting at the ref for blowing a call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of hitting someone after the whistle or getting so enraged that injuring the guy in the other uniform seems a worthy option, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of standing triumphantly over a vanquished foe, trumpeting themselves at the expense of someone else, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.

So many are watching.

Given the huge importance we place on what happens in our stadiums and arenas, sports are again positioned, just as they were after 9/11 and other national horrors, to help us uncover some meaningful purpose to an utterly senseless tragedy.

Let's not waste it this time.

There's no doubting the power of sports to lift people up, to inspire us to greater heights, to bring us together as one. There's no doubting the power of sports to console the grieving, to comfort the ailing, to make it easier to move on when we can barely find the strength for our next breath.

``Sports is one of the most effective consolations for people dealing with grief,'' said Ron Marasco, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who has written a book on dealing with loss. ``In the early stages of grief, isolation and loneliness are the biggest problems. That shared communal experience of sports is actually a very healthy thing.''

Just look at what Cruz, a receiver for the New York Giants, did during Sunday's game in Atlanta against the Falcons. He was the favorite player of Jack Pinto, one of those whose life ended on what should've been just another day at school, such a hero to the child that his family planned to bury him Monday in one of Cruz's No. 80 jerseys.

``R.I.P. Jack Pinto,'' Cruz wrote on his playing shoes, along with ``Jack Pinto, my hero'' and ``This one is for you.'' It didn't really matter that the Giants played one of their worst games of the season, losing 34-0.

Such is the power of sports.

``With a family facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their face at a time where it's tough to do that,'' Cruz said after a loss on the field but a win in life.

That said, sports must do more.

Let's have a serious discussion about all that is wrong with the games we play. The misplaced priorities. The sense of life and death when nothing could be further from the truth. And, especially, the nastiness and hatred it stirs from deep within our souls.

Not long after Cruz played with a heavy heart, we got a sampling of that other side on Twitter.

Some used social media to dole out racist vitriol against Obama while demonstrating how utterly meaningless their own lives must be, since they apparently thought the first quarter of the San Francisco-New England game was more important than a president's stirring words in Newtown.

One of the tweets was reportedly sent by Bradley Patterson, a walk-on long snapper who joined North Alabama's NCAA Division II football team during the season, though he never actually played. Now, he won't get the chance; the school said he was no longer welcome on the team, even as a blocking dummy in practice.

While those such as Patterson, who were actually willing to type out their ugly thoughts in 140 characters or less, make up a very small minority, there was surely a much greater number muttering to themselves about missing their football while Obama spoke, totally oblivious to the suffering in Connecticut.

That's why it's time for all of us to look in the mirror, to not let another tragedy pass without some meaningful change.

So, instead of punching someone in the face down at the local bar because they trash-talked your favorite team, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of posting a vile tweet about a coach's mental capacity because you think he made the wrong call, try to remember there's more at stake than a game. Instead of screaming an obscenity at an 18-year-old kid because he dropped a pass or threw an interception, try to remember there's more at stake than a game.

This is not in any way suggesting we shouldn't strive for triumph as much as we ever did. Celebrate it, too.

Life has always been about the Ws and the Ls.

But we can play nice, or at least nicer.

That would be the best way for sports to remember Newtown.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Trading Jodie Meeks gives Washington Wizards much-needed salary cap relief

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Trading Jodie Meeks gives Washington Wizards much-needed salary cap relief

With a luxury tax bill of approximately $19 million on the way, the Washington Wizards gave themselves some salary relief on Monday by trading veteran guard Jodie Meeks to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Wizards attached a future second round pick and cash to the deal and in exchange received a future second round pick of their own, NBC Sports Washington has confirmed. ESPN first reported the news.

Though Meeks, 31, was due to make $3.45 million this season, his departure saves the Wizards about $7 million because of projected tax penalties. That's a lot of savings in a deal that got rid of a player who had become expendable.

Meeks had fallen out of favor with the Wizards for a variety of reasons. He was due to serve a 19-game suspension to begin the season due to performance-enhancing drugs. The ban was announced the day before their first round playoff series against the Raptors was set to begin in April.

Meeks also underperformed last season in the first year of his contract with the Wizards and requested a trade in February. This summer, Meeks exercised his player option to remain with the team.

The Wizards were not likely to count on Meeks much at all this season because they traded for Austin Rivers in June to add depth at the shooting guard position. Meeks' role was made clear by the fact he did not appear in any of the Wizards' four preseason games against NBA opponents.

Meeks' tenure in Washington was a significant disappointment. The Wizards signed him last summer in hopes he could shore up the shooting guard spot on their bench. 

Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he never earned the trust of his coaching staff. The Wizards opted to rely more heavily on starter Bradley Beal, who logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player last season.

Now, they are moving on.

Meeks leaving the organization should have little effect on the Wizards, though it does leave them with a hole on their roster that needs to be filled. They currently have 13 players, one below the league minimum. The Wizards now have 14 days to add a 14th player.

They could sign a free agent, convert one of their players on two-way contracts (Devin Robinson and Jordan McRae) or make a trade. The Meeks deal gives them a $3.45 million trade exception.

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.

Act I (2012-2014)

Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.

In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.

The Debut

After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.

Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.

What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.

The All-Star

The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.

He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.

The Playoffs

There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.

Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.

This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.

Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

The Recognition

Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).

It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.

The Follow Up

Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.

That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.

His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.

The Postseason Return

The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.

For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.

The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.

He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.

The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.

Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.

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