Rational and Irrational Athletes

(published October 17, 2011)

The wonderful humorist Robert Benchley wrote that the world is divided into two kinds of people: Those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

I do.

For a long time, I divided the world into things Hemingway and things Fitzgerald.  Football is Hemingway; baseball is Fitzgerald.  Hockey is Hemingway; basketball is Fitzgerald, except for the ‘80s Bad Boy Pistons, who were Hemingway, and the ‘90s Knicks, who were a Hemingway parody by Fitzgerald.

Boxing is as Hemingway as it gets; poetry slams are Fitzgerald in Hemingway clothing.  Right-handed pitchers are Hemingway; southpaws are Fitzgerald.  Linebackers are Hemingway; wide receivers are Fitzgerald.  Verbs are Hemingway; adverbs are Fitzgerald.  Yin and yang, basically.

In a Grantland.com column [LINK: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7034370/ronaldo-vs-messi] examining the rivalry – or lack thereof – between Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Brian Phillips introduced a new dichotomy: rational and irrational players.

“Rational players do what they look like they do.  They look athletic, and they are athletic… Irrational players come out of nowhere.  They don’t instantly look like they would excel at the sports they excel at, but somehow when they get out on the field/pitch/court, something weird clicks into place and it works… Rational players are easy to admire, but irrational players are easy to love.”

I’m not sure I would have used the words “rational” or “irrational” to describe this distinction, but the division itself immediately suggested examples in other sports.  (Phillips offers a few himself, to illustrate the lovability of the irrational ones; I’ll note his with asterisks.  He also contends that most true rivalries involve a rational athlete on one side and an irrational one on the other, but I have my doubts about that contention.)

Michael Jordan is “rational” – he looks like the magnificent athlete he is, and with his height and his long sinewy musculature, you would instantly expect him to be the exact basketball player he was: fast, explosive, strong.  Charles Barkley* is the perfect “irrational” athlete; nothing in his rounded frame would lead you to think of him as an amazingly quick leaper and re-leaper.  On the first Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics, Jordan drew respect, but it was Barkley who left everyone in awe at his extreme unlikelihood.  As Bill Simmons and many others have observed, we will see several Michael Jordans before we ever see another Charles Barkley.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are rational, though James is faster than his bulk would suggest.  Steve Nash is irrational, and may be as universally liked as any active athlete.

Henry Aaron was rational, and admired; Babe Ruth* was irrational, and loved.  Albert Pujols is rational; John Kruk was irrational.  Mark McGwire was rational; Kirby Puckett was irrational.  Roger Clemens was rational; Pedro Martinez was irrational.  Mariano Rivera is rational; Greg Maddux was irrational.  Jose Bautista is rational; Dustin Pedroia is irrational.  Justin Verlander is rational; Tim Lincecum is irrational.  Corey Hart and Prince Fielder are irrational in diametrically opposite ways.

Before Tiger Woods, golf was a game with pros of many shapes and sizes.  Jack Nicklaus was rational; Lee Trevino was irrational.  Nick Faldo and Greg Norman were rational; Ian Woosnam and Corey Pavin were irrational.  Ben Crenshaw was rational; Craig Stadler was irrational.  Rory McIlroy is irrational, maybe the last irrational pro golfer out there, with the possible exception of Phil Mickelson, whose irrationality knows no bounds.  In golf, the usual ideas about the irrational being more lovable than the rational are tossed aside; golf is the only sport I know where crowds consistently pull for the overdog.

William “the Refrigerator” Perry became a national figure for his irrationality the moment Mike Ditka sent him onto the field to carry the ball in goal-line situations.  Calvin Johnson is rational; Wes Welker is irrational.  Aaron Rodgers is rational; Doug Flutie was irrational.

Mario Lemieux was and Sidney Crosby is rational; Wayne Gretzky was irrational.  The Sedins are rational; Zdeno Chara is irrational.

I can’t think of an irrational tennis player since Bob Lutz, who pretty much looked like he sounds.  Rod Laver’s left arm was rational, but the rest of him was irrational.  Agassi was irrational mostly when compared to Sampras; perhaps the same can be said of Nadal and Federer.

It’s harder than ever for irrational athletes to break through.  Youngsters are urged to specialize from an early age, groomed and trained methodically for their chosen sport — or the sport for which they’ve been chosen.  Those who fulfill the presumed physical requirements get first crack at advancing; those who are unexpected may struggle to get noticed.  (The statistical revolution in sports has given those who do get their chance a way to overcome such preconceptions.)

It’s all very efficient and practical.  Fortunately, there’s still some room for charm and surprise to slip their irrational way between the cracks.









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