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Scott Ostler

They're All Young, They're Very Good and They're Needed

August 29, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER

They make you turn on your TV set at odd hours because you don't want to risk missing a moment of greatness, an instant of history.

They draw you to the ballpark or stadium like a magnet, with an unspoken promise that they're going to show you something very special.

They make you forget about the drugs and the strikes, and about the legion of journeyman athletes who play the games competently but without flair.

They are the prodigies, a handful of kids in the infant stages of their pro sports careers who are already superstars.

Right now the prodigies are Dwight Gooden, Dan Marino, Eric Dickerson, Michael Jordan and Boris Becker.

The dictionary defines prodigy as "A person with exceptional talents or powers; a marvel."

Of our current marvels, none have been in the big time more than two seasons. They are breaking old records, but more significantly, they are breaking new ground. They have new moves, new style.

They are poised, they are cool. Nobody can remember them being otherwise. Dwight Gooden last lost his temper on a ballfield when he was 14 years old. They all skipped kindergarten and advanced directly to Phi Beta Kappa.

The new-kid jitters, the wide eyes and cautious moves of the rookie, these are foreign concepts to the prodigy. Pressure is translated to inspiration.

They have magic in their arms and legs.

Sure, they are human. Marino, for example, was clearly outplayed in the last Super Bowl by a former child prodigy, Joe Montana. And Marino tends to treat sportswriters as if they were carriers of infectious disease.

Also, Dan's mobility is suspect, and critics say he is merely the extension of a genius coach. Still, when Marino took over as Miami's quarterback, the rest of the NFL snapped to attention. He didn't pick apart pass defenses with finesse--he went at 'em with a chain saw of a right arm.

Dickerson caused similar consternation among opponents. Depending on the situation, he can do a Fred Astaire, dancing to daylight, or he can lower his head and explode into your face. Until his new agents came along, nobody could figure out how to stop Eric.

Dickerson was like the other prodigies. Everyone knew he would be good. But who knew he would be this good?

That's one of the beauties of the prodigy--the element of surprise.

Certainly nobody figured that Gooden, breaking into the big leagues as a teen-ager, would win 40 or so games his first two seasons.

When you deal with Gooden, you throw out conventional thinking. Ninth inning, no outs, the Mets lead the Cubs, 1-0, but the Cubs have runners on first and second, with three straight veteran lefty swingers due up against the right-handed Gooden. The manager stays with the kid, and the kid pops up two batters and strikes out the third.

And who knew Michael Jordan would be this good? Many college superstars have fizzled in the NBA. Jordan found the pro game even better suited to his wondrous style than was college ball. He became the acrobatic descendant of Elgin Baylor.

If Mary Lou Retton's routines were 10s, then Jordan consistently performed 15s and 20s. And he got bonus points for personality.

But if this class of prodigies has a valedictorian, it's Boris Becker. For his opening number, he won Wimbledon.

What makes Becker so special, aside from the fact that he is preposterously young, 17, and has a winning personality, is that he was so desperately needed.

Before Boris, color in tennis was John McEnroe stomping and sniveling. Excitement was Jimmy Connors grunting and struggling to stay competitive. Personality was Ivan Lendl twitching a facial muscle.

There was some good tennis, to be sure, but it was often overshadowed by the cheap theatrics, boorish stars and lack of new faces.

Then along came Boris. Where did this kid learn to play tennis? From Pete Rose?

The veterans must have snickered. Son, you don't dive after tennis balls. Tennis balls, hell, they're like city buses--if one goes by, no sweat, there will be another one along in a minute.

But Becker seems to enjoy the game immensely, another trait common to our current prodigies. When he dives for a ball, it seems to be more out of enthusiasm than desperation.

And the attitude. No frowns, no tantrums, no posturing. Just concentration when he plays, exultation when he wins, and afterward, a smile that lights up a room.

We like our prodigies to be cool, but we like them to realize what amazing things they're doing and enjoy them along with us. Becker does.

When he won Wimbledon, the old pros talked about how the kid would now come face to face with real pressure, from fans, media and opponents.

By winning Wimbledon, they warned, life would not be the same for poor, young Boris. They were right.

Becker summed up the changes in his life and gave a typical prodigy's response to pressure when Johnny Carson asked him on a TV interview if sudden fame had made a difference in his social life.

Boris shrugged and said: "After Wimbledon, there are more girls than before."

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