A few birthday thoughts

Today is my 47th birthday which is really strange since last year I turned 20. I thought I was 17 for this story but brilliant reader Michael reminded me that this was in 1987, so I was 20 and in college (but still living at home). I was confusing two different stories. So maybe I really am 47. I seem to be forgetting everything.

Anyway, I was 20 years old. The Cleveland Browns had just beaten the New York Jets in what remains the single greatest sports fan day of my lifetime. The Browns trailed by 10 in that game with three or so minutes left, and they were finished, and I was lower than I had probably ever been as a fan, and then there was an astonishing series of events. 1. The officials gave the Browns an absolutely awesome spot (or terrible, if you’re a Jets fan), giving them a first down when really they were probably a full two yards short.

2. Mark Gastineau committed one of the dumbest roughing-the-passer penalties ever. I remember it being on third down and 495 but that might not be exactly right. The Browns went on to score a touchdown.

3. The Jets recovered the onside kick but decided, for reasons unknown, to run a quarterback draw on third down and the Browns sacked him (in those days the clock stopped on a sack).

4. A sometimes forgotten man in dreadful Jets history, Carl Howard, committed a horrendous pass interference penalty to set the Browns up.

5. The Jets let Webster Slaughter slip behind the defense for a bomb that put the Browns right on the lip of the goal line. The Browns almost celebrated away their chance to win -- it was horribly spellbinding watching them dance around while the clock ticked down -- but eventually kicked a game-tying field goal.

6. The Browns Mark Moseley missed a chip shot field goal in overtime that would have won it. But at that point the Jets were so defeated they couldn’t have scored if the Browns defense left the field. Moseley got a second chance, and the Browns won the game in double-overtime.

It was perfect. Utterly perfect. Greatest fan day of my life. The Browns were dead and then they were alive and then they were dead again and then they won. I was almost crying with happiness. Nothing that good had ever happened to one of my teams. I was absolutely sure -- 100% sure -- the Browns were going to the Super Bowl. And for the first 20 years of my life, this was more or less my only life goal. That was the happiest birthday of my life, at least up to that point. I turned 20 four days after the Jets game.

Three days later John Elway led Denver on the Drive and, yeah, the fumble and the Jordan shot and the Mesa game and the Royals and the Chiefs and ...

You know that line in City Slickers where they are talking about their greatest day and Phil says it was his wedding day. Then they asked him, “What’s your worst day?” And he says, “every day since is a tie.” There have been a handful of good moments in my sports fan life since I turned 20. But mostly, every day since has been a tie.

* * *

I just got a happy birthday greeting from my credit card company. Didn’t think they cared.

* * *

My wife gave me the single greatest sports birthday present ever today. Well, a few years ago, she gave me a week at Kansas City Royals fantasy camp, which was awesome, especially when I crushed (no, really, crushed) a fly ball that one-hopped the fence (or rolled to it or didn’t quite make it to the fence or -- hey, it didn’t get caught). John Mayberry yelled from the dugout, “Big Joe!” It cannot get better than that.

Unfortunately, this led to my lowest sports moment ever, my next at-bat, when George Brett wandered over from his field to watch me hit because he’d heard about my big blast. I looked at a called third strike. I’m sure it was outside. George walked away in disgust.

Anyway, this present might be even better.

I’m going to be playing tennis with John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and, my personal tennis hero, Ivan Lendl. They’re coming to town for an exhibition and I guess before their matches they put on this clinic with some people and Margo, my beloved wife who knows me better than anyone, got me into the clinic. I’m going to be hitting tennis balls against McEnroe and Connors and Wilander and Lendl. I’m like a kid again. You know, except for that bad back.*

*I’ve never had a massage in my life. I hear people talk about them like they’re good things -- are they really?

I should probably mention my one experience with Ivan Lendl. I’ve talked to the other three players before, but Lendl was different. He was playing at a tournament in Cincinnati, this was at the end of his career, and I was columnist in town. I had written something in the paper about how Lendl was my childhood tennis hero. Don’t ask why ... I have no idea why I picked Lendl. I liked the way he played, I guess.

As an aside: I don’t think we have much control over things like that -- things like who becomes our sports heroes. I went into this Premier League season determined that my teams would be Fulham and Tottenham. Those were two of the teams I visited when I was in London last year, and the people there were fantastic, and the Fulham grounds is beyond awesome, and the Tottenham story is beyond awesome. I had made up my mind. Tottenham and Fulham. My teams.

And the one thing I knew for sure was that I was NOT going to like Arsenal. I figured that Nick Hornby had made liking Arsenal kind of a cliche. Plus, I learned pretty clearly, that Tottenham and Arsenal do not go together (while Fulham is a perfectly fine second choice since no other team really seems to care if you like them or not).

Only this: All year, I have been absolutely mesmerized by an Arsenal player named Mesut Ozil. Have you been watching this guy? He is is like Chris Paul and Wayne Gretzky and Cliff Lee thrown together. Every time he touches the ball, it seems, something magical happens or almost happens or should happen. He constantly makes these ridiculous, brilliant, geometrically gorgeous passes that seem to develop before your eyes like an old Polaroid picture. He pops a pass right over a defender’s head on to a player’s foot. He curves a pass around two guys like it’s on a remote control device. It’s ridiculous how awesome Mesut Ozil is.

I’m constantly stunned by the English lack of interest in statistics -- people in England almost never even talk about something as basic as ASSISTS -- and that’s a shame because Ozil, from what I can see, is not a goal scorer. He’s a goal creator. He’s this left-footed artist who is playing some sort of four-dimensional game nobody else can follow. And I find myself, against every instinct, loving him and loving Arsenal and, like I say, I’m not sure these things are voluntary.

Anyway, back to Lendl, I wrote that I loved Lendl as a kid, and the next day someone from the U.S. Tennis Association suggested that maybe I’d want to write about Lendl because, you know, it’s not like there are that many former Lendl fans running around. I could be wrong but I think even Lendl had mentioned something to him about it.

So I said that would be great. Unfortunately, Lendl had a match that day, which he lost. After the match, I was the first media person in the interview room. The USTA guy -- a good guy who did not want to give up on the dream of Ivan Lendl’s one fan writing a column about him -- said: “Before the others get down here, do you want to ask Ivan any questions?”

I looked at Lendl. He had the same look that I think Mike Tyson had before he knocked out Michael Spinks. He had the look that, I imagine, Attila the Hun had before he attacked Italy. He did not look happy.

“No, I’m fine,” i said to the USTA guy.

Lendl almost smiled. Almost. “Good decision,” he said.

* * *

Question about Forest Gump: So in the lamentable plot twist when Forest decided to run back and forth across the country for two years, how is it that the media did not connect that he was a former All-American football player who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor and had played on the first United States table tennis team to go to China?

* * *

So, I’ve known ever since I was a kid that I share a birthday with Elvis Presley. For a while, at work, they would call me “JoeElvis” for this -- well, this and for my version of “Love Me Tender.” But I share a few other cool birthdays. David Bowie is exactly 20 years older than me, and Ami Dolenz is exactly two years younger than I am. Soupy Sales and Larry Storch were both born on January 8 as was my favorite confederate general James Longstreet. Bob Eubanks from The Newlywed Game was born on January 8.

In baseball, Hall of Famer pitcher Bruce Sutter and 2000 MVP Jason Giambi were born on my birthday (well, Sutter was born before I was), in football quarterback Billy Joe Hobert was born on my birthday, and and I’m also exactly one year older than R. Kelly.

But the best to be born on my birthday, no doubt, is Jeff Francoeur. He turns 30 today and has already celebrated by signing a minor league with the team of my childhood, the Cleveland Indians. This site has, through the years, provided plenty of updates of Francoeur’s splotchy baseball record and comments about his awesomeness as a person.

Today, we offer only birthday wishes: Happy birthday Jeff. May you lay off that outside slider and may your future be crowded with left-handed pitchers.