I first heard a rumor of Cliff Pace’s injury on Friday evening, and while I took note because the story would be capital-H Huge in our world if it proved to be true, ultimately I decided that it might be the workings of the fertile minds of the bassosphere.
Then I read something about it today on Facebook, and got the rumor confirmed shortly before Jim Sexton’s story went up on Bassmaster.com this afternoon. Once it was out there for all of us to see, I had to try to get my mind around what all of this means to the sport. There are lots of issues broader than Cliff Pace right now – such as whether the deferred Classic berth is the right thing to do (I’m leaning toward the idea that it is) – but ultimately this is a story about one man. Regardless of where you come down on the broader issues, or what you think of Cliff himself, this incident can’t help but leave a sour taste in your mouth. The defending Classic champ is probably obligated to be there for his sponsors and will have to grin his way through a thousand handshakes and a million “My sympathies,” when all he ever wanted to do was get back on the water.
Oddly and embarrassingly enough, though, my first thought when I heard about the broken leg was how the team at Skeeter was going to re-rig his boat to get it Classic-ready for a man on one leg. Would they remove the hot foot? Would they put up some sort of railing to keep his balance? Add a hand-controlled trolling motor? Would he end up being the first Classic champ since David Fritts to win it in a sitdown chair? Would Mercer have to stop with the “Game Face Cliff Pace” and replace it with “Leg Brace Cliff Pace”? I make light of it now, but I suppose the fact that I assumed he’d fish is a testament to Cliff’s seeming indefatigability and tremendous competitiveness – I didn’t wonder what it would be like to sit this one out, but rather what it would be like to sit this one in.
My second thought is even more embarrassing – I wondered if this was some sort of scam or plot or conspiracy. Did something convince Cliff to take a pass on this one in the hopes that he’d get a guaranteed ride to Hartwell, where he finished 2nd to Alton Jones in 2008? In an age when even the most non-newsworthy news is subjected to Zapruder-level scrutiny and even the most incontrovertible facts are disputed, I can’t say I’m surprised that this is where my mind led me, but after thinking for about two seconds, I knew this wasn’t true. Why would he pass up a chance to become only the third back-to-back Classic winner ever? In 2010, he finished 7th in the Elite Series event at Guntersville, but even if he hadn’t I don’t think there’s a body of water anywhere that scares Cliff Pace. I don’t claim to know him well, but in the times we’ve spoken I’ve come away with the impression that he’s supremely confident in his own abilities, and wouldn’t take a dive for anyone or for any reason. No chance.
My third thought was about Michael Jordan, whose hatred of losing probably only missed Cliff’s by a few notches. Most athletes in the major sports have contract clauses prohibiting them from engaging in risky behavior – snow skiing, motorcycling, hang gliding, things like that – and also from playing their own sports in unregulated contexts like playgrounds. Jordan famously had a “Love of the Game” clause inserted in his contract which allowed him to play basketball anytime, anywhere, at his own discretion without voiding his contract. I know that bass fishing is not a team sport, and has no standard contracts, but would it be a good thing or a bad thing if risky behaviors were somehow prohibited? I’m leaning toward “bad thing,” and I think the anglers (especially Gerald Swindle) would have a collective coronary if you ever tried to limit their deer hunting one iota, but if you were Cliff Pace’s sponsor, how would you feel about investing in someone and then finding out that they might not be able to defend a title as expected as a result of a discretionary activity? It’s an ugly question, but as the sport grows as a business it’s not wholly indefensible. Granted, he could have hurt himself changing a diaper or taking out the trash (more reasons not to engage in those activities), but on the risk continuum I’d say that hunting from a tree stand results in more injuries per capita.
Finally, as I thought about the ramifications of Pace not getting a chance to defend his title, I had to dig into the memory bank to recall if any angler had not been present to defend his Classic title in my lifetime. Took about a minute, but of course Bryan Kerchal was one. He won in the summer of ’94 and would have defended in the summer of ’95 had he not died in a plane crash in December 1994, just a smidge over 19 years ago. I’m sure it’s little consolation to Cliff Pace, but history shows us that this could have been much worse – he’ll have another day on the pond and probably in a tree, too.