Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tiger Woods: Best Ever

Sports fans love to compare superstars. These comparisons are always subjective and subjected to various stretches of reason, but the discussion is fun in spite of the fact that there is never a definitive answer. It's all about banter. In reality the very idea of comparing Michael Jordan to Wilt Chamberlain is ridiculous. They played in different eras, under different rules and faced different obstacles. Never mind the fact that they played different positions, and if you want to talk about the different positions try quantifying the value of an offensive lineman in football. Impossible. Then we have those inane discussions where we try to transcend specific sports and speak in general terms about athletics. Crazy.

However at the age of 30, Tiger Woods has made a strong case for being dubbed the greatest athlete of all time. No, I can't crunch statistics to support that claim, my argument is esoteric. Before you dismiss me as one of those golf fanatics let me point out that I am loath to call most golfers athletes. Too many fat old white guys with a two-pack-a-day problem succeed in golf for it to be confused as an athletic pursuit, but Tiger Woods is different. Tiger has that quality that we rarely see in athletes. The fact that most of us have enjoyed three such athletes in the last 15 years is a anomaly. Tiger is cut from the same cloth as Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong...all three sharing the combination of admirable and deplorable traits that add up to athletic dominance. Yes, I said deplorable...sadly, a lot of what makes these guys great athletes also makes them lousy people. You can't be a great athlete without being a little selfish and egotistical.

Instead of wasting time arguing how Tiger compares to Joe Montana (who owes everything to Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh) I'll address a subject much closer to home: Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear is revered as the greatest golfer of all time and holds a lofty perch on almost anybody's all-time athlete list. He dominated golf for years, holding records for winning the most majors of any other golfer. Jack was impressive. Being from Columbus I can't help but be all too informed of how brilliant he was. To the point of nausea. Big town, small minds.

Tiger's well short of Jack's big stage accomplishments. With his recent British Open victory Tiger can only claim 11 majors to Jack's 18. Few people will argue that Tiger's best golf lies ahead of him since most golfers are at their best when other athletes are hanging on too long, but what Tiger has already accomplished is more impressive to me.

My point is that you simply can't compare Jack and Tiger stroke for stroke. I submit that you can't do that in any sport. Jim Brown's career rushing average is extremely impressive but he was a freak of nature in an era where football was still rather primitive. The same holds true for Jack...except Jack's advantages weren't physical, at least not in the manner Jim Brown's were, Jack was an elite golfer who had access to equipment, training and assistance few of his contemporaries had. Tiger faces a field of golfers who have access to everything he does. Many of the golfers Jack beat golfed as a hobby in hopes of finishing high enough to get a sponsorship and make a career of golf. Now, sponsors are abundant, purses are rich and simply qualifying for the PGA tour virtually guarantees a comfortable living.

Golf gets more exposure now than it ever did and that brings in more money. Since Tiger is already getting his share, more money is going to weaker golfers, that money is being invested in personal trainers, personal swing coaches, nutritionists and psychologists. In Jack's day the weaker golfers got day jobs and golfed with clubs straight of the shelf. Now, everybody has custom clubs that are specifically designed to enhance strengths and minimize weaknesses of each golfer. While one might think that the elite golfers benefit from those perks, the reality is a golfer as fundamentally sound as Tiger simply can't gain as much of an advantage as those with more glaring deficiencies. He's ahead of the curve and therefore can't get much help from custom clubs or special instruction. It's like a corked bat might help Omar Vizquel turn a couple of doubles into home runs, but a slugger like Manny Ramirez isn't going to benefit from a few more inches of loft. Tiger can only be hurt by inferior equipment, not helped by better gear.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle Tiger has faced is the fact the golf has conspired to beat him. The PGA and its member courses have tinkered with various holes to make them a little more difficult to play. Since the general idea is to lengthen holes while narrowing the fairways, long driving golfers are forced to use more finesse to work their way to the pin. This practice was referred to as "Tiger-proofing". When Tiger first burst onto the scene people were in awe of his drive. He turned 450 yard par fives into par threes by chipping to within 4 feet of the pin on his second shot. Tiger could accurately drive the ball 300 yards every time, now it seems every hole has some sort of hazard or at least a bad lay at that 300 yard marker.

Tiger's not the only guy to have a 300 yard drive, but he's one of the few heavy hitters to bring a formidable short game to the table. Before he came along the only golfer that combined tremendous power with such refined skill was Jack Nicklaus. The difference is that every club manager didn't spend 10 million bucks trying to take Jack's game out of the equation. There was never any "Bear-proofing". They might have softened up a few sand traps here and there, but we've seen wholesale changes in golf since Tiger came along. Even stoic Augusta National, home of sexism and bigotry, dared lay waste to Bobby Jones' legacy in order to lengthen the course and tighten up the approaches.

But that's not the half of it. Jack Nicklaus is a legend, but he was far from being a celebrity. Sure, golf fans will debate it but Jack's not, nor was he ever, as universally recognized as Tiger Woods. Even in his prime, Jack never saw the kind of crowds following him around the course that Tiger sees today. That's pressure. When Jack's dad died, people weren't sticking cameras in his face to get him reacting to a question about what his father meant to him. Tiger is essentially an A-list celebrity. And he doesn't like it.

Yes, that's the price he pays for the hundreds of millions of dollars he clears each year and at the end of the day he knows it's worth the sacrifice, but Tiger is not a media whore. He does his interviews after an event and disappears. He could have dated big name celebrities, done a reality show or even shot a thousand more commercials but Tiger seems genuinely uneasy with his celebrity status. He doesn't want it getting in the way of his golf.

With his rapid rise to mega-stardom, one would expect him to get distracted; after all, he's been striking balls since he was 3, but Tiger has remained focused. For a while it looked like he was getting sloppy, but once he adjusted to the changing courses and put his driver on the shelf he's been the top golfer in the world. He's that good. Instead of letting "them" take his game away, he went to work and proved that he can win regardless of the conditions. Make him shoot the back nine with a ping pong ball and he'll figure out how to bring it home 3 under for the day.

Tiger has faced all the big pitfalls. At 30 he lost his dad and responded by winning the British Open with that same stoic determination that made him impossible to beat a few years ago. He's gotten married, dealt with fame, fortune and negative publicity. And did I mention that he's a black man playing one of the whitest sports in history? Tiger is so cool and collected that most people forget he's black. Race shouldn't be a challenge or an issue, but we all know that it is. Tiger's probably heard more than his fair share of epithets on the course and you know he's read plenty of death threats from the sick pigs we share a planet with. With each obstacle he seems to get a little tougher and more determined. He's at an age when most golfers start contending for championships and he already has 11 majors to his name. Even though he'll eventually erase all doubt, there's little question that he's already accomplished more than anybody could have expected. He's the best and getting better.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Indians not much of a rival for the Yankees

In Cleveland fans consider the New York Yankees to be bitter rivals. Some commentators dismiss this talk as the rampant animosity the rest of the league feels toward the most successful franchise in baseball. Everybody, they will tell you, hates the Yankees.

This is true. Part of it is the consistent success the Yankees enjoy but the hatred goes much deeper than just jealousy. Fans loath The Yankees because they have always been able to get away with the sort of roster moves that would ruin other teams. George Steinbrenner buried the Yankees in mediocrity for most of the 1980's but managed to buy his way out in the 90's. We have seen him make huge mistakes in recent years but it seems that he always has the money to buy himself a competitive team. They might not win the World Series every year but they're in the hunt every single season. The Indians made a few mistakes in the 1950's and paid dearly for the next 40 years.

Of course we are also talking about New York City. Two things that are hammered at the world by mass media are New York City and Southern California. Through books, movies, television and magazines we are constantly reminded that the vast majority of the people living in the US just aren't smart, sexy or sophisticated enough to handle life in those locations. The Yankees are the flagship enterprise of New York arrogance. If you don't hate them, you're admitting that you aren't worthy. You have no self esteem.

But the Indians might have a good case for claiming a rivalry against the mighty Yankees. Some fans would insist that it dates back to the 1940's but The Indians weren't exactly a post season fixture back then either. They won the World Series in 1920 and 1948, lost it in 1954 and spent the next half century waiting until next year. As a long time Tribe fan I can only attest to the misery. The Indians have been inept at their best and embarrassing at their worst.

Nope. If we're going to claim that a rivalry exists we have to show cause in the modern era and with the Indians spending the second half of the 1990's as a playoff regular this is where you can start to make the connection. Of course, even that is a stretch considering the Indians never managed to win a World Series while the Yankees claimed four rings. However, it's not just about post season success, regular season numbers come into play.

Since 1995 the Indians have played the Yankees 104 times. They have won only 40. That's not including the current 2006 season which is far from over and fans might point to the 19-1 beating the Yankees endured on the 4th of July, but at the time this article was being written the Yankees were on their way to drubbing the Indians 9-3 in the eighth on July 5th. Even if the Indians manage to pull it out and win three in a row against this so-called rival, they will only match their best winning streak against the Yankees since 1989. It's been 16 years since the Indians have swept a series. Hardly the stuff of bitter rivalries.

Not only have the Indians failed to post a .500 record against their hated counterparts over the past decade, season by season, regardless of how dominant the Indians have been, the Yankees have always been competitive either taking the season series or splitting it. The 1994 Yankees went 9-0 against the Tribe before that season was halted. In 1995, when the Indians were one of the best teams in the history of the game, Cleveland went 6 and 6 against the Yankees. The best the Indians could do in 2000 was split the series 5-5 with the Yankees coming out ahead every other year. In fact the Indians are well over 1000 losses in the all time series. Rivalry?

Now fans will tell you that the stats don't tell the whole story, but what other story do you have? It's not like the Indians have stolen any titles from the Yankees. The playoffs haven't exactly been a regular hangout for the Indians. Cleveland got the best of the Yankees in the 1997 Divisional Series, but New York returned the favor by beating the Indians in the ALCS in 1998. In either case the Yankees enjoyed the last laugh because they won it all in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Indians essentially served as a doormat so Atlanta could finally win a World Series in 1995 and of course who could forget how the lowly Florida Marlins backed into a world title after the Indians piddled away a win in 1997? Even when you throw out the stats and just look at the big picture the Indians look less like a rival and more like that old college buddy who always lays down a week's pay on poker night.

Sadly the Indians just don't have any rivals. They haven't been good enough to foster any real animosity on the field. They haven't established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and they haven't spoiled anybody's season. Other than their own. The closest they came was last year when they clawed their way into a battle for the AL Central title that Chicago thought it had in the bag all season. With a week left to play and a winner takes all series on the line the Indians folded up shop and handed the White Sox a title. In fact, one could argue that the Indians gave the Sox the jolt they needed to get in gear for the playoffs. Had the Indians failed to force Chicago to play for something at the end of the season, the White Sox might have been flat in the playoffs. That's hardly the stuff of rivalries. A rival doesn't want to send you a championship ring for being such a great practice squad.

There are those who will say I'm being too hard on the Indians. Others will claim that I'm not a true fan, but history doesn't lie. The Indians stink a lot more than they shine and lousy teams don't have rivals. Especially rivals who seem to have a shot at winning a title every year. Tribe fans should keep this in perspective before talking smack.