Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

“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.”

More than a decade ago, Paul Simon explained that the above lyric from Mrs. Robinson was, in his words, “meant as a sincere tribute to (Joe) DiMaggio’s unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes.”

DiMaggio was indeed in a class by himself for those who thought of him as a role model, or a “hero”. He was considered by many people as the greatest Italian American athlete ever. I would imagine, with his quiet demeanor and workmanlike approach, he was not at all comfortable with the label of hero.

How could the previous generations not think of DiMaggio in terms of the heroic? Growing up destitute and poor in San Francisco, he was the son of Italian immigrants, his father a fisherman who wanted Joe to follow in his footsteps. He instead became the greatest living baseball player of his era, an athlete so talented and complete he inspired Ernest Hemingway to write in The Old Man and The Sea to “have faith in the great DiMaggio”.

But, counting down to the end of this year, the image of a past hero like DiMaggio may be the absolute best we can do now. In this steroid and drug era of sports, we have seen every type of denial, from the silence of a Mark McGwire, the impassioned defiance of Raphael Palmiero or Roger Clemens, and the embarrassment of a Michael Phelps.

And now we have the most spectacular collapse of all: the Tiger Woods saga. His infidelities and “trangressions”, as he calls them, will probably not have any effect on his chase to become history’s most accomplished golfer, but have we seen the last of Tiger Woods, the role model?

An unfortunate after effect of Tiger’s problems is the fact that no longer should your kids look up to him, but he’s now not a decent model in the life of an adult, either.

Think about it. If you were in the pursuit of excellence in anything related to work or your personal life, didn’t Tiger look like a sterling example?

Golf champion, on his way to being bigger than his sport. The first billion dollar athlete. Beautiful wife, two young children, and a now legendary relationship with his father and how he inspired him with his love of golf.

He looked like a great example to me, and I can only feel extreme disappointment on how it has all unraveled. I would hope he can fix this, stage a comeback. But the damage has been done.

The lesson learned? The one that must always be re-learned, again and again.

Athletes and entertainers are not meant to be role models, period. They, for the most part, no longer deserve the accolades. Take that pedestal we’ve put them on, and tear it down. As far as creating the ideal image on how we should live our lives, they no longer have what it takes. If they ever had it in the first place. And really, isn’t the pressure to be a role model for so many,  a little too much?

Our models for life should be the ones closest to us: family members, friends, people that we know who have lived their ordinary lives to the best of their ability, or maybe have overcome an extreme circumstance. When we watch those closest to us, we take away the lessons we need to enjoy life. Today’s celebrity role model has almost no shot at that. After DiMaggio’s death in 1999, Paul Simon also said:

“In these days of…transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.”

Looks like that quote could have been written last week. It also looks like that Tiger is now in seclusion, trying to figure out his next move. I think to get some great ideas on how to live his ideal life, he should hunker down with some biographies of sports legends like DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Vince Lombardi, Joe Montana—hey Tiger, pay no mind to the fact that all of these names end in a vowel, it matters not. Although athletes should not be thought of as role models, they did it right anyway.

Just pay close attention to the way they did things during their careers, Tiger. We could all learn a thing or two.

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