Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

More on race and sports

Posted by digglahhh on 21 July 2007

During a recent discussion about race and the perceptions of athletic success, my friend Tony over at Baseball-fever reminded me of this 2003 poll of 550 Major Leaguers, taken by Sports Illustrated.

The two questions that I found most intriguing were the following:

5. Who gets the most from the least talent?

David Eckstein, Angels 62.2%
Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks 6.7%
Jamie Moyer, Mariners 4.8%
Joe McEwing, Mets 2.7%
Kevin Millar, Red Sox 1.7%
Juan Pierre, Marlins 1.2%
Albert Pujols, Cardinals 1.0%
Brad Ausmus, Astros 1.0%
Eric Byrnes, Athletics 0.7%
Greg Maddux, Braves 0.7%
Mike Sweeney, Royals 0.7%

6. Who gets the least from the most talent?

Ruben Rivera, Giants 29.3%
Raul Mondesi, Yankees 6.9%
Frank Thomas, White Sox 3.1%
Mo Vaughn, Mets 3.1%
Adrian Beltre, Dodgers 2.8%
Kyle Farnsworth, Cubs 2.8%
Ken Griffey, Reds 2.4%
Aramis Ramirez, Pirates 2.1%
Esteban Loaiza, White Sox 2.1%
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers 2.1%
Jose Guillen, Reds 2.1%

*If you are interested in reading a little more about the players, and my attempt at an objective evaluation of whether the players were good choices for the respective lists, see the comments section.

Eight of the top ten responses to the first question, including the overwhelming first choice, are white players. Minority players account for nine out of ten of the top vote-getters in the second, including the top choice.

Other observations:

· Six of the players on the top list are not only white, but blond.

· Skinny guys always hustle? The average height and weight of the top list is certainly lower than that of the bottom list.

· Most fans would agree that the players on the top list, on a whole, show more “enthusiasm” when playing the game than those on the bottom list.

· As of the time of the poll, three players on the bottom list were former MVPs (Griffey, Gonzalez [2x], Thomas [2x]). Players on the top list had won none, though Maddux has won four Cy Youngs.

· As of the time of the poll, players on the second list had nearly twice as many All Star appearances, 23 to 12.

I could write about how different skills are perceived as bearing a greater relationship to natural abilities while others are understood as being the products of hard work and study. But, that skirts the issue and distracts from the point.

Such a proposition is a chicken and egg argument as it passes through a racial filter. Virtually all events on a baseball field require a mix of athleticism and natural talents and abilities. Athleticism plays the smallest role in baseball of any of the major sports. In fact, the core component of the game, hitting, is largely a function of hand-eye coordination. All players who play the game are naturally gifted and methodically trained. Whether skills are considered “natural” or “developed” is a false dichotomy that has as much to do with who possesses specific skills as it does with some sort of theoretical essence of that skill.

Years ago, future NBA Hall of Famer and gangsta-rapper look-alike Allen Iverson was chastised for taking practice too lightly. His original press conference tirade was memorable, because it is played over and over. The line that he repeats repeatedly is, “Practice, we talking about practice – not a game, not a game – practice.” That remark made people think of him as lazy and undedicated. The caveat to that remark is not replayed ad nauseam. Iverson went on to ask if it is logical to assume that a player of his caliber could achieve such a level of play without being intensely dedicated to practice. A perfectly reasonable question and self-evident truism. It is well known that Allen Iverson played as hard as anybody in league – many said he played harder than any other player. He is undersized, underweight; his body took more punishment than any other player’s. He is one of the best scorers in the history of the NBA, a former MVP – an immortal. To assert that he didn’t value practice, or was lazy, was absolutely ludicrous in the face of his game and his accomplishments.

These pronouncements are often based on personality, on disposition and appearance. We are talking about quantifying the difference between a group of people who are all anomalies on an individual basis – both in terms of their gifts and their dedication. Iverson did lead the league in tattoos, and was one of, if not the first NBA player to sport cornrows. He also dabbled in a second career as a rapper, projecting a general thug-like image.

Once again, we see implicit racial associations at play. And, once again, we deny their existence by propagating false dichotomies and overstating our abilities to perceive differences in immeasurable, yet largely similar, quantities of vague and arbitrary ideas, like “natural talent” and “dedication.” Furthermore, it is likely that the arbitrary definitions are tainted by inherently racialized perceptions and thought patterns.

3 Responses to “More on race and sports”

  1. digglahhh said

    My breakdown of the lists:

    The first list is headed by David Eckstein, that is no surprise. Eckstein is heralded as the poster-boy for heart, will and hustle, triumphing over skills and talent. I’m not going to argue with that. Eckstein is undersized (5’6”) and it looks like it takes all his might to loft the ball from the hole between short and third to first base. However, his hustle and desire is apparent; there’s no denying that. Eckstein is about a league average player. He plays a premium defensive position and produces offensively at about 10% below the league average. His speed is above average, but not exceptional. Eckstein is a logical and deserving choice for this list, and I only object to those who use this characterization of him to unjustly inflate his accomplishments on the field. Good choice.

    Counsell was a utility infielder short on utility. He is best known for his strange batting stance, and for performing very well in both the 1997 and 2003 NLCS (combined .400 batting average). Not very much talent, not much made out of it. Not a good choice.

    Moyer is your classic lefty junkballer, a “crafy veteran.” (Have you ever heard a righty referred to as a “crafty veteran?) Anyway, I’d say that Moyer is very talented. I think it is pretty fair to classify him as the poor-man’s Tom Glavine. Poor choice.

    McEwing was a utility player who was best known for his defensive versatility and his uncanny ability to hit Randy Johnson. He only fits half this bill; he wasn’t very talented. But never being a regular player, he never really got much out it either. I guess one could say that his making the bigs itself was an overachievement. Not a great choice, but I can understand how he exuded this image.

    Kevin Millar is an interesting case He isn’t known for hustling, or even staying great shape. He’s a good choice in the sense that he happened to play in a home stadium that made best use of his limited skills. If that wasn’t the motivating factor for his votes, then this selection is very curious.

    Juan Pierre is a classic hustle guy. He has no skills to speak of other than tremendous speed. He gets a ton of singles and never walks. His range is terrible for his speed, and his arm would rank as about fifth best on my softball team – I am absolutely serious about that. He got a boatload of cash from a clueless Ned Coletti, but he hasn’t really over achieved. His output is basically exactly what you would expect from a guy who has incredible speed and no other skills. He is known as a hard-worker though. I’m ambivalent about this choice.

    Albert Pujols’s inclusion could render this whole poll inane. The guy is one of the most talented hitters to ever walk the planet. Absolutely stupefying.

    Brad Ausmus is a good defensive catcher who is horrible at the plate. I don’t know what he is doing on the list. He seems to get exactly what one would expect out of his skills. No idea why this his name would come to mind if presented with this question.

    Eric Byrnes is a hustle guy, too. An energetic competitor who wears his emotions on his sleeve and is always willing to sacrifice his body throughout the course of the game. I can see his inclusion here, but he does have more skills than most of the guys on this list. Understandable choice.

    Greg Maddux is one of a handful of pitchers who has a legitimate argument as the greatest pitcher of all time. But, apparently that’s a fluke. Apparently, intelligence is also not considered talent. As part of his Negro League, showman exhibitions, Satchel Paige used to lay sticks down sticks of gum and throw the ball over them, Greg Maddux could do this at least three out of ten times, substituting the gum sticks for Nicole Richie. That’s fucking precision, and that’s talent. There aren’t many players ever who got more out of their talent, however much of it they had, than Greg Maddux did. Carl Everett must have made this choice (Everett doesn’t believe in dinosaurs because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible).

    Mike Sweeney was a very good hitter who was below average defensively and incredibly injury-prone. He had above average power, a very good eye and struck out rarely. He’s another guy who seemingly got exactly what one would expect out of his skills. Don’t really see it.

    Ruben Rivera was a highly touted prospect with the Yankees. He just wasn’t very good. Maybe he was lazy, his defense was certainly poor. I would think that his biggest problem would have been the fact that when he swung the bat, it infrequently made contact with the ball. Doesn’t strike me as a great choice.

    Raul Mondesi was often referred to as lazy, so maybe there’s something to be said for this one. He had a rare, and sought-after mix of power and speed, going 30/30 twice, and 20/20 three other times. He was also known for having on of the best arms in the league. Mondesi was also known as a malcontent, and he suffered numerous injuries, breaking down in his early 30’s. He’s a reasonable choice here.

    Frank Thomas is an offensive deity. I don’t think he had much to offer defensively, so wasted talent couldn’t come from there. There was a sentiment that Thomas, early in his career, was too passive at the plate and was too willing to walk in RBI situations. If that’s the basis of this, Thomas is just getting punished for the ignorance of others. Plate discipline is a skill, a talent – and Thomas has one of the best batting eyes of all time. Besides, he drove in over 100 eight seasons in a row, and is 26th all-time in RBI. He lead the league in OBP five times, and is 18th all-time. He was a back to back MVP, and a first ballot Hall of Famer who was useless in the field. How much more could you get out of your skills? I don’t think I can name a single player better than Thomas, who was less athletic. Terrible choice.

    Mo Vaughn is similar to Thomas. He suffered more severe injuries than Thomas, and didn’t keep himself in shape, that’s true. So, if this vote is based on that, it is reasonable. But in his (short) prime he was one of the best hitters in the game. Perhaps an okay choice, but only if based on lack of conditioning.

    Adrian Beltre was an uber-prospect who, many feel, underachieved. He did have one huge, MVP-caliber season with Dodgers, subsequent to this poll. I don’t see anything about him that causes me to think that he is a slacker or anything. Probably seemed like a better choice at the time.

    Kyle Farnsworth throws the ball very hard, and does not much else well. He is also fragile. He has a big mouth, and maybe he is hard to coach, I don’t know. Not sure, I could see it.

    Ken Griffey is another Hall of Famer. If not for injuries, he may have been the one to break Aaron’s record. He was phenomenal defenisive CF in his younger days, and sacrificed his body to make plays regularly, much to the chagrin of his teams. I have heard many times that he is cavalier about practices, and lacking in “leadership.” All things considered though, if Junior isn’t getting all out of his talents, it is downright scary to imagine how good he, allegedly, could have been. Overall, he was the second best player of the 1990’s. Even knowing where this idea came from, you can’t really argue with the back of his baseball card. Bad choice.

    Aramis Ramirez is damn good. He’s a very good hitter who lacks plate discipline. He’s an average defender at third. Perhaps he was slacking in 2003 because he was eager to get out of Pittsburgh. He’s been much better with the Cubs. How much of that is motivation versus maturation of skills, I can’t really judge. Again, probably a better choice then than now.

    Esteben Loiaza had one really good year with the White Sox; other than that he has been okay to poor. I’ve heard that he is moody, and can be unfocused at times. I don’t know exactly how talented he’s supposed to be, but I can buy his inclusion. I would speculate that this may have been an okay choice.

    Juan Gonzalez was known as flightly and unfocused. He is a testament to the overvaluing of Triple Crown stats and wasn’t nearly the player traditional numbers made him out to be. It’s hard for me to agree on the inclusion of somebody on this list who I actually feel was dramatically overrated. Mixed feelings.

    Jose Guillen is known for being unfocused, lazy, and combative. He’s bounced around way more, early in his career than a player with his skills should. I think it is fair to place a substantial amount of the blame for Guillen’s underachieving on him, as opposed to overly high expectations. In all fairness, he has also suffered numerous injuries. Overall, I’d say he is a good choice.

    Meta has asked me to pose some alternatives, and I’m tentative. I tried to make objective judgments about the choices made, but my original piece talks about how arbitrary these distinctions are, so I think it would be somewhat contradictory to form my own list. I offered some thoughts on the original selections, trying to be objective. I’ll approach this from a different, more boring angle.

    Players who I feel don’t get the most out of their abilities are players like, one of my favorite whipping boys, Alfonso Soriano. The guy has all the skills in the world, but he makes a lot of bad decisions. He has tons of speed, but doesn’t read pitchers well and gets thrown out attempting to steal more often than he should. He is impatient at the plate and will swing at an eye-level fastball even if he’s ahead in the count 2-0. Players who I feel get the most of out of the least talent are players who are fortunate enough to be in situations that are beyond their control, yet benefit them. That’s why Kevin Millar had the potential to be a great choice. If it is based on the fact that he is an average, one-dimensional, right-handed, fly ball, pull hitter, and he happened to play in a stadium where the leftfield wall labeled as only 310 (many believe it is, in actuality, closer to 290 or 300) then he is a good choice, and as good an example of this as I can think of.

  2. By “poll of 550 Major Leaguers”, do you mean that the players are the ones who responded to the questions? That puts an even more interesting spin on things. It would be fascinating to see, if it were possible, rankings produced by players of different ethnicities.

    Just as in the recent thread on foul calls of NBA referees by ref/player ethnicity, this issue may be more complicated than simply that of stereotypes of/discrimination against one group only. And the idea that the players – who have special insight into each others’ abilities, but also exist across the spectrum of racial identity/expectation/privilege/disadvantage, and have personal loyalties and animosities among themselves that may also be influenced by race – produce such consistently race-informed perspectives on each other, seems somehow portentous for our hope of transcending such perspectives ourselves.

    As a side note, what must it be like to know that 1, or even 2, out of every 3 players in your league think you’re playing below or above your weight? To be voted “most underperforming Major Leaguer” by 30% of the entire league itself? That’s got to hurt.

  3. digglahhh said

    Yeah, KTK, these are players voting on their peers. It would be fascinating to see who voted for whom, to see if the votes were split across racial lines.

    The more of a veteran you are, the more it has to hurt. For the younger guys it is different, there are always guys who come out of nowhere to surprise and “can’t-miss-prospects” who miss. Seems to me, that Ruben Rivera was just overrated, based on his “tools.”

    But, as you said, these guys are supposed to have special insight, they see each other’s work ethics better than we do, and they presumably have something of a keen eye for talent. Yet, race defines both lists.

    One thing that struck me though, is that Manny Ramirez didn’t get any votes. Manny’s image is one who is unfocused, lazy, and ditzy. But, the truth is that he is very hard worker and he spends more time in the cage than anybody on that team (like Iverson, no surprise at the truth, considering he’s one of the best hitters of all time). I was glad that Manny didn’t get any votes, and that gave me a little confidence that these guys might be making better decisions than I originally thought. But, there is really no way for us to tell.

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