There’s a scene in the movie Cobb where a long retired Ty Cobb is getting honored by some baseball writers, or some group and he’s asked how he thinks he would fare against “modern pitching.” Cobb takes a moment and says he could probably only hit .280. Shocked, the questioner asks him if he really thinks the pitching is that much better than it was during his era and that’s when Cobb clarifies. The pitching isn’t better, he’s just an old man. At his advanced age, .280 is all he could muster. When I saw the movie I dismissed the scene as an (possibly embellished) example of Cobb’s arrogance. Was he a prick because he could hit? Or could he hit because he was a prick? When I think about that scene now, though, it takes on a broader meaning. It symbolizes how hard it is for athletes to let go and how difficult it is for them to deal with the generations that followed them.
I should clarify one point before going on, the majority of what I’ll say here applies to star caliber players. You’ll meet plenty of everyday, “regular” athletes who are acutely aware of their own limitations, who are more apt to give credit where credit is due. But, the superstars, the bigger names are different. This week I’ve been bombarded with a few fresh examples.
Michael Jordan is turning 50 this month and it’s a cause for many things, one of those being a long Jordan piece written by Wright Thompson at ESPN. It’s a good read if you haven’t checked it out yet. Perhaps not as revealing as some have made it out to be. Personally, I don’t find it surprising that Michael Jordan is maniacally competitive at Bejeweled Blitz. I could have seen that coming from a mile away, but there’s one anecdote that stuck out to me in the article as symptomatic of what I’m talking about. Jordan claims only four current NBA players could have been as successful in “his era.” Kobe, LeBron, Dirk and Kevin Garnett. Chris Paul? He’s no Mark Price! Dwight Howard? Would have been lucky to hang with Robert Parrish back in the 80s. That’s not what Jordan said, it’s just the natural next step to his idiotic claim. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder how someone can really believe that?
But, this is what happens with ex-athletes. I read another article this week where golfer Raymond Floyd called the Golf Hall of Fame a joke. This is another good read. Floyd has had an interesting life and career, he’s dealing with the loss of his wife, but there are things in the piece that jump out at you. He’s got a point about the golf Hall of Fame, the standards have become a bit lax, but Floyd is fiercely protective of his legacy and his era. Here’s a quote from Floyd on some modern players:
“But these days some J. O. Jones journeyman is thrilled to be 50th on the money list. It’s the person’s makeup, his goals. I always wanted to win as often as I could, and the money would take care of itself. Some guys make so much that they’re content; winning doesn’t matter because they’ve got a great lifestyle. It takes a unique personality to become a star, a true superstar.”
This brings to mind a couple of things. First, Floyd spent a good portion of his earlier career as the kind of player he doesn’t like. He admits as much. He coasted a lot in the early years. But, secondly, when did Ray Floyd become a superstar? He won 22 times on Tour and has 4 majors, but Floyd was never the best player in the world, not even for an instant. He played with Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Watson but that doesn’t make you one of them.
How would Floyd feel if Lee Trevino got up and started shouting about how you should at least five majors to be in the Hall of Fame? Where do you draw the line? Is Fred Couples (2013 inductee) a bit short on credentials? Probably, but his best golf was probably better than Floyd’s and how does electing Couples lessen Floyd’s career? If being a HALL OF FAMER is your most important credential–you’ve probably got an issue. No one looks at Jack Nicklaus and says, “There’s a Hall of Famer.” They say, “There’s Jack bleepin’ Nicklaus.” The rest is self-explanatory.
For a long time I thought I the bitterness of ex-athletes was driven by money. In Philadelphia most are familiar with the legacy of Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik was a two-way playing icon in for the Eagles. He led them to the 1960 NFL Championship as a center and a linebacker. He delivered one of the most famous and devastating hits in NFL history. He’s still revered, but we don’t hear much from him and we didn’t in the past because every time someone asked Bednarik about the NFL all they got was vitriol. He wanted the Eagles to lose the Super Bowl. He hates Jeff Lurie, the modern player and is openly jealous of their salaries. Bottom line, the players were tougher when Chuck Bednarik played and they deserved all the perks of the modern athlete.
I can understand that. When you made 25 grand a year and you see guys doing the same thing and getting 10 million–that has to sting. But Bednarik has still done a lot of trading off his NFL days. And, you could easily say Bednarik was lucky to play when he did. At 230 lbs, he certainly wouldn’t have been playing any center in the modern NFL. And if he did, I hate to think what Vince Wilfork would do to him. Could he even run down a modern RB to deliver that famous hit? Chuck doesn’t look at that part of the equation.
But when you see an athlete like Michael Jordan taking a similar stance to Bednarik it blows up the financial argument. I think Jordan is pretty well set for money. If things ever got tight he could sell his NBA team, or his plane. I guess I thought that eventually a generation of players would come around who had it good enough that they didn’t begrudge the guys who have it a little bit better. But it doesn’t appear as if that will ever be the case. Being a star athlete comes with a lot of burdens, the biggest of which may be eventually no longer being a star athlete.