Where have you gone, Joe Paterno?
Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away?
I was only a little boy in 1967 when that song came out. The line quoted above always made me sad despite the fact that I was only faintly aware of its meaning at the time. Joe DiMaggio’s glory days as an icon of baseball were long gone by the time I was born in 1958. When I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of “Mrs. Robinson” I didn’t have a clue who the man was. All I knew for certain was that he had “left and gone away” and that this was a very sad, tragic thing indeed.
We’re always searching for heroes, aren’t we? And it seems that, when we do find them, they invariably let us down. I’m tempted to say that we should never hope to find another Joe DiMaggio, but that would be an exercise in futility. As it turns out, Joe DiMaggio the man wasn’t the Joe DiMaggio of our childhood fantasies. Decades of journalistic and historical inquiry inform us that “Joltin’ Joe” was an egotist and a jerk of the highest order.
He made people pay good money for the privilege of owning his autograph, and wherever he went, he insisted that he be introduced as “the greatest baseball player of all time.” (He wasn’t.) And although at the time of her death 50 years ago, he professed an abiding love for his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, the biographers of both of them reveal that he wasn’t particularly nice to her during the brief period they lived together as husband and wife.
All of this trivial nonsense went racing through my mind this morning when I read about the the latest deflation of an American super-icon. This time the fallen idol’s name is Lance Armstrong. “Lance Armstrong”: it sounds like the name of a comic book hero, as in, “Tune in next week for another chapter in the thrilling adventures of Lance Armstrong, All American Boy!”
And perhaps the comic book analogy is not too far off the mark. Comic books are pure fantasy. Someone once told me that as a kid, he believed Superman to be a living, breathing human being. When he matured a bit and learned that the “Man of Steel” was in fact the product of someone else’s imagination (and a figment of his), he wasn’t terribly shocked or upset by this knowledge. He learned to live with it and, last I checked, he is today a quite stable—happy even.
So what if Lance Armstrong is a cheat?
So what if he forced his teammates to dope? So what if his entire career is a lie and a sick joke? That’s okay. Lance Armstrong was a figment of our collective imagination—as were Superman and Joe DiMaggio. As was a guy named OJ Simpson. Remember OJ? I wonder what ever happened to him. Fallen idols, shattered dreams.
To be perfectly blunt with you, I don’t give a rat’s ass about sports. I never have. My opinion is that life is precious—and people (men in particular) waste those precious lives thinking about and obsessing over the topic of sports.
Do you want to know what my favorite sport is? Figure skating. I’m not kidding. I could never understand why so many of my peers found this to be somewhat “unmanly” on my part. What’s the big deal? Watching a bunch of guys in tight-fitting uniforms hopping around an AstroTurf field was never my ideal way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But those figure skaters? They were gorgeous! That’s just a peculiar personality quirk of mine. I’ve got loads of ’em. Pay it no mind.
I can’t tell you who won the 1932 World Series because 80 years later, it doesn’t really matter who won it. I can tell you who won the 1932 campaign for the presidency though. Eighty years later that does matter. Very much so.
I’m not completely indifferent to sports. There is my passion for the New York Yankees. Whenever the Bronx Bombers make it to the World Series, I become very excited. I always get down on my knees and pray—that they lose.
A number of years ago, you may recall, they tore down the house that Babe Ruth built, a historical landmark, in order to build a new stadium that actually has about 45 hundred fewer seats. One thing it does have, though, is a lot more private sky-boxes for them to cater to their plutocratic clientele. To hell with the Yankees. A few years ago when they got beaten senseless by Boston in the World Series, I was the happiest man in New York.
I was born on the 10th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s death.
And I’m not insensitive to the feelings of betrayal that sports fans feel these days. There will be asterisks next to the names of so many of their heroes (with a “doper” footnote) for all time and eternity. It’s really not too difficult to understand the disillusion that so many of them experienced when they came face-to-face with the undeniable truth that their action figure icons were nothing more than a pack of steroid-injecting cheats and egomaniacs.
In fact, there is some degree of empathy within me. I, too, was deeply let down by the behavior of a sports legend I had always looked up to for no other reason than an indirect, familial connection. I was reminded of this the other day when former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was handed a virtual life sentence in prison for the sexual abuse he committed against the children he took under his wing.
Joe Paterno was the first cousin of my late uncle, Joseph Gargiulo. He married my father’s eldest sibling, Audrey Degan, in April of 1942. The physical resemblance between the two men was always striking. They might have been fraternal twins.
Because of this connection, I always felt a great amount of pride and admiration for the guy. That his once-sterling reputation could have fallen this low is almost inconceivable to me. It’s like a horrible nightmare from which one awakens, grateful at the realization that it was just a dream. Only this is no dream. In fact, it’s too hideous and real to even contemplate.
I was hoping that, somehow, he would be exonerated. That’s never gonna happen—not in this lifetime or any other for that matter. The release in July of Louis Freeh’s seven-month-long investigation into this sordid affair put an end to any such hope.
The kindest thing that can be said of Joe Paterno at this stage is that he was, at best, criminally negligent. A number of people—with knowledge of the law far more expansive than mine—have have said that had he not died on January 22, he would today be under indictment for felonious conspiracy. A few days after the Freeh report was made public, the statue of “Joe Pa” that had for years graced the campus of Penn State was torn down, probably a wise decision.
Think about this: there is a website called “Find a Grave,” which shows the final resting places of persons of note. Each deceased celebrity has his or her own page with a comments section where one can write their thoughts and tributes. Joe Paterno’s comments page has been permanently turned off because too many people were posting rude and obscene things on it. Usually that only happens with presidential assassins and mass murderers.
In a matter of a few months a 60 year, unblemished career and reputation have been reduced to ashes on the alter on public opinion. His reputation as “the most winningest coach in football” has been erased from official memory. What a waste; what a pity, and how unspeakably sad. Where have you gone, Joe Paterno?
Uncle Joe Gargiulo passed away on October 6, 1990. He would have turned 100 on March 12, 2012. I’m certainly glad he didn’t live to see his favorite cousin’s disgrace.
Don’t be heartbroken when your heroes let you down. They always will, you know. They always will. They’re just too damned human.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Tom Degan is a traitor to this beautiful and bountiful nation of ours. Not only that he is a disgrace to the flag that all real Americans honor and revere. It is a sad thing to realize that he walks among us, with the same rights granted to decent people everywhere. Here is how utterly contemptible he is: he wrote what you are now reading. He is trying to make you believe that it is being written by a third party. How cruel! He is just being a smug, elitist liberal! Tom Degan has no shame. I take back what I said. “Contemptible” is too kind a word for me—I Mean”Him.” His address is: PO BOX 611 (2590 Rte 17M) Goshen, NY 10924 (845) 294-5714. Tom Degan’s Blog.
Editor: Edie L.