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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Korked Bats' Athletes of the Decade

Consider this: I want you to tell me which is more comedically entertaining to you: Mike "The Situation" from MTV's Jersey Shore (arguably the seminal reality TV personality of the decade) doing his, uh, thing, or, say, Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy (arguably the seminal comedic film character of the decade) lamenting the loss of his dog Baxter over the telephone in a public phone booth.

We could argue about this for hours. The easy answer is, of course, to say that it's Burgundy. He's being intentionally funny, right? His character was honed, shaped and contrived. A lot of brilliant writing goes into his comedy, along with some of the more outlandish improv to ever hit film.* His comedy takes actual talent, and comedy of talent is always better than comedy of unfortunate irony, right?

*I mean, come on, do you really think that 'Sweet Lincoln's Mullet' was actually written into a script? Really?

But I could make an incredibly compelling argument that The Situation is far more funny than Ron Burgundy. His character is, sadly, just as contrived as a fictional character. And there's something, to me, disturbingly hilarious about watching a real person as contrived as The Situation interact in a (somewhat) real world setting.* And, dang, I can't stop watching Jersey Shore because whether it's intentional (the exception) or unintentional (the norm), The Situation makes me laugh at least ten times an episode.

Then there are other arguments to be made for reality characters in general. It's something new every week, right? Instead of one character serving one script in a two hour film, we get 18 or so episodes of reality characters. So, you continue to get new material from that person for four months.

*As contrived as reality TV has become, The Situation transcends its attempted control because, well, he was a contrived character long before he went on Jersey Shore. Watching him is truly fascinating.

Obviously, there is no right answer here. The bottom line is, because the contexts of those two separate mediums are so vastly different, it's like comparing apples to oranges, or rather guidos to aimless journalists. The criterion for rating these two characters are almost counterintuitive in some ways, so it's terribly difficult to truly define which is truly funnier.

Now, with that line of thought in mind, answer this for me: which male athlete was more dominant this decade: Albert Pujols or Roger Federer? Which individual sportsmen was the most incredible to watch: Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant? Who was the best "winner" of the 00's*: Tim Duncan or Lance Armstrong? Who was the better performer: Petyton Manning or Michael Phelps?

*Everybody has their own opinion on what we should call this decade, and honestly, I have zero input. You might think this aside is, thus, pointless (and you are probably right), but I spent at least five minutes trying to come up with a good name for the decade, and I'm absolutely dumbfounded. I've got nothing. Honestly, though, doesn't that make sense for such a weird decade?

Odds are, your initial inclinations were to opt toward the guys in individual sports. It's human nature to do so. We are taught growing up that the most important measuring stick of an athlete is the number of championships they have to their credit, and how much they win.* Naturally, Tiger, Lance, Roger and Mike** stand out because of their excellence in those fields, right? They're winners, pure and simple, and ergo the best four athletes of the decade- in some order.

*Well, second, of course, to how much fun they look like they are having, and how much they look like a kid out there.

**I know I've got to stop with all of these asides before I turn this thing into a novel, but when you group those four names together, they could easily pass for a boy band, right? Someone call Lou Pearlman!

Let's see -- Tiger is the player, naturally. Lance is the one that has overcome adversity. Roger is the international one, and Mike is the one with a drug problem. Let's fire up the band!

But rule me this- if football was comprised solely of throwing a football through moving tires- rudimentary, I know, but just go with me here- wouldn't Peyton likely win every year? Or at least most years? I obviously don't know, but it illustrates how much of this stuff is based on context.

Sure, Tiger won a gazillion majors this decade*, but imagine if it was only his role to hit iron shots, and he was on a team with John Daly (who handles the driver) and, say, Anthony Kim (who handles the putter). Well then what?

*I wonder how many times he won the Players Championship. Zing! Alright, sorry, that'll be my last aside for a while.

I really hope you guys see where I'm going here. If not, I'd probably be best off retiring my laptop right now and going to visit my adviser about a change in major.

Athletes in individual sports are put at such a high advantage in terms of performance, wins, and championships because, except with a few rare exceptions, those athletes are responsible only for themselves. That's it. They perform capably, and more often than not they'll walk away winners.

Tiger Woods has never had to drag Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, Luke Walton and Lamar Odom into Augusta to play the Masters. Roger Federer hasn't ever had to rely on production from Edgar Renteria to win the Aussie Open. Lance Armstrong has never worried about spacing on the court, and how he fits into the offense, and getting his teammates involved, and playing both sides of the ball, and so on.

I realize that I'm probably putting a bit too much thought into this. After all, sportsmen of the decade lists are put together for fun, generally, but as a blogger it's inherent in me to pick harmless things apart needlessly. Plus this is fun, right?

In that spirit, I've broken the whole sportsmen of the decade debate down into several categories. Mainly, because it makes things easier on me, but also because it organizes the athletes well enough so that they're being compared to athletes of a similar ilk.

At any rate, I've broken down the best male athletes of the decade into three categories: Male Athlete in Individual Sport, Individually Talented Male Athlete in a Team Sport and Male Athlete in a Team Sport.

I realize that those last two categories are confusing, but my rationale is basically this: Individually Talented Male Athlete in a Team Sport refers to those guys that are great individual talents, but haven't necessarily meshed well with that whole team thing.*

Male Athlete in a Team Sport refers to guys that have performed incredibly well as a cohesive part of a team.

*A lot of people will argue that this sect of athlete deserves no merit, and I definitely understand and respect that viewpoint. But I very politely disagree. I don't necessarily think that you have to be a great teammate to be a great athlete and performer. Others do, and that's fine. This is just my opinion.

So, now that I've burnt a solid 1,200 words (but you barely noticed, right?!) introducing them, let's delve into the lists.

Introducing, the Convoluted But Definitive Lists of the Best Male* Athletes of the As Yet Unnamed Decade!

*Given the length of this post, I'm going to stop using the term 'male' to identify the athletes. I realize this isn't politically correct, but this post is already far too lengthy the way it is, you know? And I've already wasted SOOOO much needless space with stupid asides and quips and comments about things that are so totally and completely irrelevant to the content of this post, so it's clearly time that I take the necessary steps to stop wasting space, right? I mean, you guys just want to read a 500 word blog post filled with some jokes, and now you're stuck reading some cocky, untrained college kid that thinks people will read his 2,000 word blog post. So, in that frame of mind, we'll go forward- and hopefully stop wasting so much space- by leaving out the word 'male' to identify the athletes. I respect ladies sports, but this one is just about the male ones. If I were to include the ladies, I would be using even MORE space, and I'm sure it'd annoy everyone that I wrote so much. So sorry if that offends anyone, and we'll go forward saving some space.

• • •

Individually Talented
Athlete in a Team Sport

I don't think this category takes much explanation. You guys know the type of guy I'm referring too. Those great talents that do great things, but are quite often referred to as 'selfish.' Again, I do think these guys deserve some recognition, but this list is definitely the least distinguished of the three, and the one most athletes would likely not want to be a part of.

I start with the fifth best, then work my way down to number one.


5. Allen Iverson
THE NUMB3RS:
Among all NBA players to have averaged 26 ppg for their career, Iverson's 6.2 assists per game trail only Jerry West (a top 10 all-time NBAer) and LeBron James (could go down as a top 5 all-time NBAer). He was the '00-01 MVP, and carried the Sixers by himself* to the '01 Finals, and won a game against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to boot.

For his career, he's 23rd in NBA history in FG made, 13th in FT attempted (Keep in mind that the guy is shorter than 6-feet tall. Of the players in front of him on the list, seven were post players, and the other six were at lest 6-4. Iverson is tough as nails. Ugh, I should've just made this an aside. Alas!). He's 12th in career steals, and 36th in assists.

His 26.95 ppg rank him 6th all time, and he's 17th in career points. He did most of this damage in the decade, and those per game totals were better before he fell apart in 2008.

*Philly's starting line-up for the series: Iverson, Aaron McKie, Dikembe Mutombo, Tyrone and Jurmaine Jones. Uh, yeah, Iverson was stupidly good that year.

THE CASE:
Like every player on this first list, Iverson has gaudy career statistics. Also, like every player on this list, he was individually outstanding this decade. And, like every player on this list except- except one- he never won any championships.

Now, I'm not typically a proponent of blaming one player in a team sport for his team never winning a championship. There are so many factors that figure into a world championship (especially luck) that it's unfair to hold one player completely responsible.

No, what lands Iverson on this list isn't the fact that he's never won a ring, it's the way he's always put himself first, at the expense of his teammates, his coach, the trainer, whatever. But again, this list isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure it's not ideal, but Allen Iverson is right there with Isaiah Thomas and Tiny Archibald as the greatest 6-feet tall (or shorter) players to ever come through the NBA.

But then there's this.


4a and 4b: Randy Moss and Terrell Owens
THE NUMB3RS:
Two of the most talented and productive receivers in NFL history, I had a hard time separating these guys. Moss has 11,664 yards and 120 TDs this decade, and Owens has 11,579 and 113. All at the top of the 00's.

They are both right up there in most of the all-time receiving categories, and the were the definitive first and second best (in some order) receivers of the decade. Owens was more consistent, I suppose, but Moss' best seasons definitely trump TO's best seasons. That's why I didn't bother trying to distinguish them.

THE CASE:
Just as obvious as their talent for catching footballs and scoring them are their talents for upsetting teammates, leaving teams on bad terms, and getting fined by the league for touchdown celebrations.

It's fitting that these guys were the two best wideouts of the decade, because they both symbolize the modern wide receiver- both the good and the bad. I know a lot of people argue that both guys are very misunderstood, and I would certainly buy that if their issues had only come up once or twice. But we have a decade's worth of evidence that both guys are great at both scoring touchdowns and finding the doors out of town.


2. Shaquille O'Neal
Finally, some controversy!
THE NUMB3RS:
22.6 points a game. 10.4 rebounds a game. A gaudy 58% from the floor for the decade. Of course, those numbers are drug down by the seasons after 2006. For the first half of the decade, there was nothing (beside the charity strip) that Shaq couldn't overpower. We won three rings with the Lakers and one with the Heat.

He's Shaq. He's the man. We know it. But...

THE CASE:
You'll remember earlier that I don't weight championships as heavily. It's just my own personal thing, and you're 100% fine in thinking that I'm wrong, because I very well could be.

But as gregarious and lovable and agreeable as Shaq comes off, I've long thought that he was masking a darker side. Part of this probably comes from the fact that I've always defended Kobe following the break-up after the '04 finals. I used a fruitless 5 trillion words trying to explain that, once.

But when you look back at the decade in retrospect, you'll notice that Shaq has been traded three times. Two of those teams, in my opinion, have been better without him,* and there have been whispers that his TV show, "Shaq Vs.", was originally Steve Nash's idea, and Shaq stole it from him.

Then couple in the fact that his four championships have all come with one of the top three guards in the NBA playing beside him, and that the Suns had their worst year since pre-D'Antoni in Shaq's only full year there, and we're on to something.

This very well could be an emotion pick. I don't claim to be completely despondent of that business. But even if he doesn't completely belong on this list, I feel like the argument needs to be made.

*The '07 Heat obviously don't count because they were without D-Wade as well, but the 08-09 Heat were pretty good without Shaq.


1. Barry Bonds
THE NUMB3RS:
...are freaking terrifying. I'm leaving the steroids business out of this for a few reasons. Mainly, there has been no definitive study showing exactly how steroids (or PEDs, or whatever) improve performance, and I would wager a fairly strong guess that they don't make make strike zone knowledge any better, nor do they improve hand-eye coordination.

Having said that, Bonds put together one of the great statistical stretches in baseball history earlier in the decade, when he posted a four year stretch (01-04) where his OPS (on base plus slugging) was DOUBLE the league average each year. Four straight years! Unfortunately, I don't have access to some of the better statistical websites- so this would be terribly difficult to verify- but that has to be one of the top two or three four-year stretches in baseball history.

You guys know the rest of the numbers.

THE CASE:
I nearly include baseball as an individual sport, because it really is. There is nowhere near as much gamesmanship involved as other team sports.* But, alas, you do have to have production from your teammates to win championships (although Bonds nearly won the 2002 World Series by himself).

Now, to remind you, I'm not discounting Bonds because he didn't win championships. Baseball is the team sport where one player's effect can best be minimized, and some of the all-time greats never won a ring.**

It's more just because he's just such a deplorable, unlikeable fellow. I truly believe that the way an athlete interacts with the media goes a long way for his reception. They are, after all, the ones that control how he is portrayed in a lot of ways. And Barry despises the media. Now, is that fair? Probably not.

I think we can all probably agree, though, that if Barry Bonds played in a free-flowing team sport, you wouldn't like to play with him, would you? Sometimes, that's all you need to know.

*You may think otherwise. Again, that's fine. We're just ideologically different, and there's no problem with that.

** Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Dick Allen and Ty Cobb just to name a few.

• • •

Naturally, this post needs to be broken up. If you made it to the end of this, please feel free to comment with your thoughts. I'm incredibly curious as to what everyone else thinks about this stuff, and it's all terribly fun to argue about.

Lists two and three will be out tomorrow, so be sure to come back!

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