Monday, June 16, 2008

The Un-Sport

Earlier tonight, New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang sprained his foot while rounding the bases. Wang, who had to be helped off the field, came up lame while trotting at three-quarters speed on a meticulously maintained field of play.

Hearing this news after watching the Celtics and Lakers maul each other for 48 minutes only reaffirmed a gnawing suspicion:

Baseball players are not athletes.

The dictionary, of course, roundly rebuffs the previous statement. According to, an athlete is “a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.” And this point I will concede—baseball players are extraordinarily gifted, blessed in all manner of throwing, hitting, and going to salary arbitration.

Something is wrong, though, when a player can’t run—nay, jog—without getting hurt. Something is askew when a sport can sport an obese vegetarian. In professional basketball, football, hockey, soccer, or just about any other institution inhabited by bestial, sculpted automatons, running is merely the prologue to a story built of jumping, cutting, checking, dunking, blocking, tackling, scissor-kicking, and fouling. Even golfers, whose “athlete” status is heavily disputed, can walk 18 holes without heading to the disabled list.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a luminary of the sport and future Hall of Famer, describes himself on his blog as “not having one ounce of athletic ability.” Imagine Tracy McGrady, Randy Moss, or Sidney Crosby saying the same of themselves—not only would they be incorrect, but the very nature of their work would inherently disprove such a claim. Professional basketball (McGrady), football (Moss), and hockey (Crosby) demand a masterfully integrated skill set, wherein speed, power, and agility (and in hockey’s case, skating)—in other words, athleticism—are paramount.

Baseball does not demand the same prowess. The sport’s tasks are markedly linear and distributed: someone throws, then someone swings, then someone runs, then someone catches. Only one athletic act is performed in any given moment, and a different person performs each task. Forget an integrated skill set—baseball players only enact one motion at a time, and often, a player only possesses one skill. Pitchers in the American League, for instance, do not hit. Designated hitters do not field.

The result? A nominally agile, semi-out-of-shape guy who can nonetheless throw a ball with unusual velocity—say, Curt Schilling—can become a sports legend. In Schilling’s case, his skills, or lack thereof, could never translate into a career in another sport. Baseball is the only place, in other words, where a person without athletic ability is called an athlete.

If baseball players are to be considered athletes, then so are bowlers. And billiards players. And, for that matter, master carpenters—they, too, excel at a particular manual task. If baseballers are athletes, then by equivalency, so are musicians. One might argue that performing a Bach cantata takes more adeptness, accuracy, dexterity, and agility than throwing a baseball. If baseball players are athletes, then virtually anyone with a honed, individuated skill must be classified so.

Chien-Ming Wong hobbling off the field rang with inevitability: hurlers can’t be expected to run, just as a master carpenter can’t be expected to paint the house he builds. Just because two tasks happen in proximity to one another does not mean the same person can perform both.

As the Celtics-Lakers series slowly morphs into a classic, one can’t help but wonder how Wang or Schilling would fare in a machismo-laced battle with Kevin Garnett. Not well, no doubt, but no matter: they’re paid to throw a ball, and Garnett is paid to be an athlete.

Stay Sprained, CMW


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