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It Was Good Week for the Knights : Nancy Wins LPGA Title; Ray Homers Against Dodgers

Associated Press

It was a good week for the Knight family of suburban Manhasset, N.Y.

Last Sunday, the wife, Nancy Lopez, won her second Ladies Professional Golf Assn. Championship and 31st tournament of her LPGA career with a stirring final round at Kings Island, Ohio.

Meanwhile, the husband, Ray Knight, was on a West Coast swing with the New York Mets, and the veteran third baseman hit a home run in a victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday night.

Back on Long Island, there was the house to care for, as well as Ashley Marie Knight, their 1 1/2-year-old daughter.

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All of it worked around a double-sport schedule that has helped end more than one previous “dream marriage” of star athletes.

Marriages of sports celebrities, like those of Hollywood and show business personalities, often are fragile commodities, frayed by tender egos, extended absences and exposure to the temptations of fast-lane societies.

The union of Lopez and Knight is two years, seven months old and growing. It is, the two parties say, not only harmonious but downright blissful, in defiance of the odds. They maintain they have found the antidote in a genuine mutual admiration, deeply entrenched love and absence of selfishness.

“We spend our winters together,” Knight said. “In the summer, when we both are busy, Nancy arranges her schedule to conform with my trips on the road. When I have a Thursday off, I always fly to watch her play. When she takes a break, she comes home to watch me play baseball.

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“I don’t think there’s been a time when we were apart for more than six days.”

When Lopez won the Chrysler--Plymouth Charity Classic in Chatham, N.J., last month, Knight was usually in the gallery. The Mets were home that week, and Lopez could usually be spotted in the Shea Stadium stands for night games.

“I love to watch him play baseball” Lopez said. “I can’t wait to get out the park. But neither of us takes our job home with us.”

It may be an unbeatable formula, but one not always followed. Two of the most publicized marriages of sports stars in recent times were those of America’s Harold Connolly and Czechoslovakia’s Olga Fikatova after the 1952 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, and gymnast Cathy Rigby to pro football star Tommy Mason in 1972. Both marriages ended in divorce--the Connollys’ after 17 years, the Masons after 13.

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“I think the women’s movement had a lot to do with our breakup,” said Harold Connolly, who is now married to pentathlete Pat Winslow. “We both were goal oriented. Olga might have felt she was cast in my shadow and wanted to get out and develop her own personality.”

Connolly is a school administrator in Santa Monica, Calif. Fikatova wrote a book, “Rings of Destiny,” and has not remarried.

Rigby’s fame outlasted that of Mason. After competing in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, she became a commentator for ABC Sports and began an acting career. Mason retired from the the National Football League.

“Sports didn’t have everything to do with failure in my first marriage, but certainly contributed,” said Rigby, who is now married to actor Tom McCoy. “In our kind of bigtime sports, you live in a dream world. You have everything thrown in your lap. In real life, your ego is not fulfilled. You haven’t learned how to communicate. You find yourself fighting over little things.”

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Knight said ego conflicts have not been a problem in his marriage to Lopez.

“I’m proud of Nancy, she is proud of me,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a superstar. I am just a good ballplayer. But I’m a strong person. I believe in myself.

“I grew up in the South, spoiled by a mother and two sisters. They always had breakfast, lunch and dinner ready for me. Nancy spoils me, too. But it’s not because I want her to. It’s because she wants to. She is a loving, giving person. ...

“As for me, I don’t want any of her glory. I just want her love. I live for her to be successful. The time I am happiest is when I see a big smile on her face.”

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It was this kind of shared devotion that made a success of the marriage of Babe Dikrikson, the greatest woman athlete of all-time, and George Zaharias, a 300-pound professional wrestler known as “The Crying Greek of Cripple Creek.”

The Babe was an athletic phenomenon, a multiple medalist in track and field in the 1932 Olympics and much more. She once struck out Joe DiMaggio in baseball. She boxed, played football, became the world’s best woman golfer.

In 1938 she was paired with Zaharias in a golf exhibition in Los Angeles. The two swapped banter and insults, the barbs spawning a romance. After marriage, Zaharias, independently wealthy, discarded his career, became his wife’s manager and followed her around the world. The Babe, in turn, started cooking, wearing makeup and going to the beauty parlor.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias died of cancer in 1956 at age 42. George Zaharias died in May 1984.

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What made the Zaharias marriage flower almost wrecked that of tennis stars Chris Evert and John Lloyd.

At the time of their marriage, Evert was the world’s top-ranked woman player and Lloyd was an up-and-coming member of the British Davis Cup team.

Lloyd decided immediately to subordinate his own career and concentrate on that of his more successful bride. Wherever Chris went, so did John, sitting at courtside. His own game deteriorated.

In 1983, Chris dropped John as a mixed-doubles partner and played with her old flame, Jimmy Connors, in the $400,000 World Mixed Doubles Championship, which they won. Later, the Lloyds announced a trial separation.

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Subsequently, Lloyd, realizing he was smothering his wife, struck out to reclaim his competitive edge in tennis. He became a much better player, and the marriage was salvaged.

“John is very good about not being possessive,” Chris Evert Lloyd said. “But we have decided that two weeks apart will be the maximum.”

Also on track is the marriage of two Olympic gold medalists -- U.S. decathlon star Bill Toomey and British long jumper Mary Rand, now living on the West Coast. They are raising two children, Samantha, 14, and Sarah, 12, for future track stardom.

“Mary is big when we go to England and I’m big back home, no problem,” Toomey said.

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Other widely publicized marriages have not fared so well.

Jackie Jensen, an all-star athlete at the University of California and the American League’s Most Valuable Player with Boston in 1958, married Olympic diving star Zoe Ann Olsen. The marriage ended in divorce after 14 years, with Olsen charging cruelty.

Another slugging outfielder, Ralph Kiner, married tennis star Nancy Chaffee in the 1950s. Thirteen years later, they were divorced.

“I can’t blame it on selfishness or jealousy,” said Kiner, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame and a broadcaster for the Mets. “Nancy was willing to shelve her own tennis aspirations and assume the role of housewife. I don’t think you can blame it on our different sports. The different societies, maybe yes.

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“I know I was uncomfortable when she had to go on long trips, as she perhaps was when I was away. But I do remember that when I watched her play I was a nervous wreck. I died every time she missed a shot.”

This is the second marriage for both Knight and Lopez. Their romance was not a spontaneous, explosive thing.

“I first met her in Japan in 1978,” Knight said. “I was there on an exhibition tour with the Reds. She was competing in a golf tournament. Our meeting was brief and casual.”

At the time, Lopez was married to sportscaster Tim Melton, who started in job in Houston about the time Knight was traded to the Astros in 1982.

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“We renewed our friendship -- the three of us,” Knight said. “Nancy would bring her nephew from Los Angeles around to talk to me.

“Occasionally, we’d see each other. Nothing serious. I never thought of Nancy in a romantic way. Usually it was in the company of Tim.

“I had already gone through a divorce of my own and now Nancy was telling me that she and Tim were having problems. They were divorced in May 1982.

“Only after that did Nancy and I take a real interest in each other. It was a friendship that grew into a love affair. We were married the following October.”

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The history of broken marriages between sports stars does not concern them, they said.


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