Baseball will soon be awarding its most valuable player awards for 1998. Here are vignettes of athletes from three different sports who have learned which among earthly treasures and pleasures to value most.
- Father and son
Corby Jones was one of the most highly sought-after high-school quarterbacks of the mid-'90s, but he turned down schools like Nebraska and Tennessee to stay in his hometown and play for the University of Missouri team that employed his dad as defensive line coach. For three years Curtis Jones stopped by Corby's locker before each game to give simple advice and share a prayer. Corby particularly started valuing the pats on his head that he received from his dad when the threat grew that there might not be any more. The entire family was relieved when Curtis underwent successful heart surgery last spring. Just in time for the beginning of summer football practice, doctors cleared Curtis Jones to return to coaching on July 23. But three days later he died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 55. Then Corby Jones began experiencing a series of "firsts," but not those an athlete prizes. "The first day at the football facility without dad" and "first time on the practice field without dad," is how Corby explained life after death to Sports Illustrated: "Over the years he gave me a million reminders. Now that he's not around to repeat them, I remember them better than ever."
- Health and opportunity
Last October Chris Hayward was struggling to lift more weight, finish his practice drills, and make a simple lay-up. He was fighting through a sprained ankle, a sore back, and strep throat. The 6'8" freshman, a top-100 player recruited by the up-and-coming University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was trying to be the best on his team, but his health was working against him. Then the dam broke. When Mr. Hayward took an elbow to the mouth, his tongue swelled up and he could not eat for three days. Blood tests revealed a sea of oversized white cells: Leukemia. Last March the team made it into the 64-team NCAA tournament and fell one overtime defeat short of the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the potential star was in the hospital for six weeks, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. Fans contributed $58,000 to help with the medical bills; Mr. Hayward prayed that God would "give me a chance at my dream," he told ESPN Magazine. He prayed when he received the chemotherapy. He prayed through the pain of a bone marrow biopsy. He prayed at night when the nurses left. He gave thanks this past April when doctors told him the leukemia was in full remission. Mr. Hayward does not know what will happen long-term, but last month he rejoined his teammates for the opening "Midnight Madness" practice. "All of a sudden the spotlight changes," he said. He was Chris Hayward, future star, and now "you're Chris Hayward, the guy who came back from leukemia."
- Leadership and loyalty
He put on his cap and walked slowly toward the locker room late in the evening on October 21. For the 17th straight season, Tony Gwynn's year ended short of his goal. The New York Yankees' four-game sweep of Mr. Gwynn's San Diego Padres in this year's World Series ended abruptly his 17th year of superlative batting and solid play in the field. Remarkably in these days, Mr. Gwynn has spent his entire major league career with the Padres. His father was among the many who felt he should have left the Padres years ago for a team that would pay more and win more. But with today's salary structure the Padres were still paying Mr. Gwynn plenty, and he did not covet more: "I like it here, even if we haven't won as often as I would've liked." Tony Gwynn is a player who still marvels at the sport of baseball. He took his son with him when he entered Yankee Stadium for the first time in his career last month. He remembered his own dad and told The New York Times, "We talked about it [the Stadium] all the time when I was a kid ... seeing the name, thinking out the history, I think of my dad." The New York Yankees last month, with their 125th win, completed a record-setting season; perhaps their many Christian players (see WORLD, Sept. 12) helped them to avoid the swaggering typical among past Yankee winners. But Tony Gwynn batted .500 during his team's losing series, and afterwards praised the winners and Padre fans, "who showed a lot of character."