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The Te'o-Kekich Connection

Jonathan Daniel

A popular TV show that has participants on a quest to find "real" love is often charged with accusations of staging, its "real" engagements breaking off in a shorter amount of time than the Royals' stay in playoff contention. That same question of reality intruded on our world of actual relationships and break-ups when Manti Te’o was exposed as the victim of a hoax, one in which he may or may not have taken part, involving the ultimate long-distance relationship -- the woman involved was so far away she couldn’t be reached, because you can’t be any further away than not existing at all.

Te’o was a great story: a young athlete who supposedly endured personal tragedy midseason with the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend while leading the revitalization of a Notre Dame program that hadn’t been in the National Championship picture since the early ‘90s. As we now know, only some of that was true, and Te’o has emerged as either a cynical operator or the most easily misled chump since Pinocchio. As more and more details are revealed, especially following the Katie Couric interview, it’s easy to ask, "If he wasn’t in on it, how could he believe in it?"

This is actually the easiest part of the whole affair to understand. As Mickey and Sylvia sang, love is strange. The need of it can compel people to do things that seem incredible and outlandish to those on the outside, but to them seem perfectly reasonable given what they stand to gain. One of the greatest misunderstood examples of this effect was part of the Yankees’ 1973 season. Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, both pitchers with the team and best friends, announced before spring training that they had exchanged wives and families.

Wife-swapping was common during the "free love" phase of the 1960s and "key party" fad of the early 1970s, but those were more transient exchanges than what Kekich and Peterson proposed. Their trade provoked a nationwide backlash and an unwanted PR disaster for the Yankees. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called the swap "deplorable" and bemoaned its "effect on young people." Yankees relief pitcher and minister Lindy McDaniel was quoted in a Bangor Daily News column in 1973 as saying, " It’s not very good is it? {…} A Christian or a ballplayer always find differences in morality and that’s nothing new. It’s hard to separate private life from baseball life." Conservative columnists called it "an assault on family values." Many thought it was a stunt.

They were all wrong. As Peterson said just this week, "It’s a love story. It wasn’t anything dirty." Kekich and Peterson had already started sleeping with the other’s wife during the fall of 1972, and rather than consider those experiences as purely recreational, they became evidence of a greater problem in their marriages. For the two pitchers, their solution, however unorthodox, was to do whatever it took to be happy in their personal lives.

The story is, to some degree, tragic. Peterson is still happily married to Kekich’s ex-wife, Susanne; that’s the happy ending. However, Kekich and Peterson’s ex-wife, Marilyn, quickly broke up. Kekich had abandoned one marriage for what he thought was real love and ended up alone instead. Perhaps his marriage to Susanne would have ended eventually, given how easily it came apart in the first place. We cannot know the answer. Dwell instead on the image of a man who grasped for happiness, however unusual the manner of his grasping, and came away empty-handed.

As fans, we put athletes on a pedestal based on their on-field accomplishments. In the Kekich-Peterson case, the difference between the public’s and the pitchers’ teammates reaction -- "it’s their own damn business, and as long as it doesn’t affect their pitching, it’s strictly their baby," said an unnamed teammate -- underscored a huge misunderstanding. It was as if fans and Commissioner alike did not realize these athletes had personal lives separate from their jobs, lives in which the players and their wives were involved in not the national pastime, but the most American pastime of all: the pursuit of happiness.

Te’o might have been in on the hoax, but he is still just a 21-year-old college senior. Think about what you wanted when you were in college -- I mean, when you looked beyond those surface desires that could be fed with alcohol and parties, what did you really want? You wanted someone to love you as you endured late night study marathons, and maybe were rejected when applying for job after job after job. At the end of the day, you wanted someone other than your mother to say, "I love you".

Hoax or not, we’ve all desired what Te’o, and Kekich and Peterson wanted: love. In fact, if you have someone, then try to understand the plight of Te’o and Kekich, who would probably trade their careers to be in your shoes right now.