Fans want the maraschino cherry atop the sundae

It's good to judge people by what they actually do. The proof is always in the performance.

This is one of the many strong pulls of athletics. Athletes perform, numbers are recorded, and the proof stands. It doesn't have to be interpreted. A baseball player who hits .176 is a poor hitter; one who hits .338 is excellent. Period. Pittsburgh is an inadequate baseball team this year, and the proof is the Pirates have the fewest wins among the 30 teams. Period.

Yet, here's the odd thing: While we like it in sports that the numbers give us definitive answers, there is something deep within that wants just a tad bit more from an athlete than athletic performance.

We want flair. Or pizazz. Or color. Or cleverness. Or intrepidness. Or mystery. We want a maraschino cherry atop the chocolate sundae.

Enough is not enough. Perhaps because we're Americans, we always want more. True, athletes may not always be role models, but their antics and carrying on invariably fascinate. Braves pitcher John Rocker is a splendid talent with a flame-throwing mouth. But he was far from being a household name until his intemperate spout-off in a national magazine.

Current case in point is the premier event for tennis in this country, the US Open, which is being contested now through Sept. 10 in New York City. What could happen is that Venus and Serena Williams will meet in the women's finals. Their skills have increased geometrically, and it is not hyperbole to suggest that the two just might rule tennis for eons. Both are ranked in the Top 5.

But that's only the talent side. It gets better. They are the first great sister act ever in tennis. The appeal in their story is delicious. They mostly grew up in California on the wrong side of the tracks, by conventional thinking. They learned tennis in a dangerous public park from their father, who knew little about the sport.

They are brash and cocky, traits that are not normally considered admirable. Yet, they pull it off in a way that rivets our attention even more.

We watch and we marvel that they could emerge in what is perceived as a country-club sport for spoiled, white rich kids. They have style and even panache.

What the Williams sisters give us is more than talent. We like it. That's why, for many, it's far more entertaining for tennis fans to follow them than it is to focus on Martina Hingis or Lindsay Davenport or Pete Sampras, terrific players but drab.

Many of our starriest stars are the same, bringing more to our enjoyment than simply their unfathomable abilities:

*Boxer Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ off and on - mostly on - for years, had fists that stung and a mouth that roared. Talking once about his favorite topic, he offered: "I figured if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest." The mangled syntax and twisted thought of baseball legends Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra elevated them in the public mind.

*Joe DiMaggio was the most graceful ever to play baseball. Even old, grainy film can't obscure this.

He had a hit in 56 straight games in 1941, considered by many the most significant of baseball's records. Yet what lifted him from star category to galaxy luminary was his marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe.

*Golfer Arnold Palmer had a blazing competitive spirit that always ignited his army of devoted fans.

*Babe Ruth, baseball's first great slugger, saw his image enhanced by his wild and raucous behavior off the field. Ruth would be far less in our minds today if he had simply played the game, then gone directly home by himself after every game to read Descartes.

*Joe Namath, quarterback for the Jets, could work wonders on the field. But it was not by accident that he was known as Broadway Joe. Namath never met a good time he didn't want to have. Fans loved it, and his mystique was burnished.

*Shaquille O'Neal, the L.A. Lakers star, dominates on the court, but he also sings and acts - sort of. There is something appealing about a star being able to do things other than his sport.

*Michael Jordan captivated with his talent. Tiger Woods does too. But without each of their 5-million-watt smiles, we wouldn't have thrilled as much.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as dessert after a spectacular meal.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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