I had an interesting conversation with my dad last night about the difference between athletes who were born great and athletes who become great. There is a huge difference between the two, the best example being a much discussed former duo of the New England Patriots. Randy Moss, more than any other athlete in history, represents the “born great” category. I will argue with you all day he’s the greatest athlete in the history of the NFL (all apologies to Bo Jackson) and one of the greatest tragedies of our sporting experience was not getting to see him reach his full potential.
Contrast that with his former quarterback Tom Brady, he of the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft and the best example of a “became great” athlete. Brady had some God-given talent, but nowhere along the lines of Moss. It was during his college days that Brady developed an unparalleled work ethic that took him from being a good QB to a great QB. This continued in the NFL and the rest, of course, is history. When we eventually compare the two careers one day, Brady will definitely be remembered as the better player. He never left anyone wondering what he could have achieved if only he had fully dedicated himself. To go all cliche on you, he left everything on the field. But I’d still be willing to argue with you that Moss was the more talented player, and it’s not even close.
I bring this up to bring up another point my dad and me eventually got to in that conversation. He mentioned how it was incredibly rare that we see the hybrid of the two categories mentioned above. The rare athlete who was born great and yet still strives to become greater. The best modern example of this Peyton Manning with Michael Vick attempting to do the same thing. The greatest historical example is Michael Jordan. As Bill Simmons said about MJ in a recent column on Grantland, “When will I see the league’s best athlete, hardest worker, smartest player and most ruthless competitor in the same body again?” It’s the same thing with Manning. You couldn’t dream up a better physical specimen to play the quarterback position. Combine that with the genes and knowledge that was passed down from his father along with an extraordinary work ethic and competitive streak, and you get the type of rare athlete who can single-handedly carry his team to double digit victories as consistently as the sun rises in the east every morning. My dad wondered aloud whether we would ever see that again.
And God bless sports because I have seen the light, at least I hope so. Lost among the hoopla surrounding the return of the NFL this week was the return of a certain right-handed flamethrower who has a chance to achieve the rare born great, became great combination. Stephen Strasburg returned from Tommy John surgery last night and somehow looked even better than the prodigy that dominated MLB for too short a time last season as a rookie. Strasburg pitched only 5 innings and made a fairly talented Dodgers roster look like they were playing their first season of kid pitch. What’s scary is that his fastballs only averaged 96.3 last night and scouts and doctors expect that to increase heavily as he rebuilds arm strength in the coming weeks and into next season.
Strasburg was a late bloomer, but there is no doubt that his talent among pitching prospects is second to none. He combines the remarkable speed of a Justin Verlander fastball with a devastating curve ball along the lines of Barry Zito circa 2001 and a changeup that’s as effective as the once great Johan Santana. No one in baseball has an array of pitches like that. There might be better pitchers, there might be smarter pitchers, but in terms of raw physical talent, no one matches him.
Which makes it all the more important that you as a sports fan embrace this kid and everything that he could become for baseball. Last year we didn’t see the ruthless efficiency that he demonstrated last night when he threw first pitch strikes to 82 percent of the hitters he faced yesterday. Last year we saw a kid still was doing what I like to call “out-athleting” people, rather than working to develop a mental approach as gifted as the physical one. By all accounts yesterday, Strasburg gave up only one hard hit ball whereas last season he used to give up many.
Is it possible we are about the see the next great American sporting icon? An athlete so rare, so dominant, that you can’t help but root for him, even when he’s facing your own team? That’s how it feels with Strasburg. He pushes the limits of what’s physically possible for the human body to achieve in the sport. He demonstrates a subliminal ability to throw a baseball that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. If we could get ten to fifteen years of this level of pitching, who knows what it could do for a sport that is suddenly losing ground to basketball and even soccer?
If you’re a baseball fan, wait, scratch that. If you’re a sports fan, you should be rooting for Strasburg to succeed. Jump on the bandwagon now. Be the first to root for this Kevin Durant of baseball. And most importantly, do it before a certain future teammate named Bryce Harper makes it to the Show. If there was ever an example of Randy Moss in baseball, he is it.
Perhaps Strasburg can take them both to new levels.
Generation Y, where we wish it was Dave Chapelle who was coming out of comedy retirement to host the Oscars.