We look at today's athletes, the astonishing way they are rewarded for their peculiar and largely irrelevant talents, and it's hard to make sense of our own lives. Well, it's impossible. A guy in plaid pants can ball roll into a hole, earns $100 million? He rolls it in more easily than we do, sure, but is that worth $100 million? A head scratcher.
As we roll ourselves into the next millennium, our only advice is, don't think about it too much. Unless there's some cosmic corrective looming that we don't know about (in our experience, cosmic correctives always take you by surprise), the premium for play is only going to go up. And the people who putt, pass, pitch and punch will continue to enjoy positions of importance that, in any other time (before ESPN? Monday Night Football? The Industrial Revolution?), would be baffling.
Still, there is the occasional athlete who satisfies our old-fashioned (and increasingly desperate) need for proportion, who actually gives us more than he gets. It's not that he's so much better than the rest, or works so much harder. That's appreciated and goes without saying. It's something else. The ability to generate awe while performing in the compression of crisis—which is what sports is, right?—is so rare that we'll only see it a few times in our lives.
You know what we're talking about, even if you can't articulate what that something else is any better than we can. There's some charisma, some extravagance of spirit that goes beyond talent. That makes us care about certain athletes far past their ability to putt and pass.
How many of these athletes are there whose peculiar and largely irrelevant talents stir a society, whose otherwise pointless play looms heroic, whose brief careers become reference points not just for their sport but for us, whose brave little performances help us make sense of our own brave little lives? Not many, for sure. But let's say 20.
He was an aristocrat in spikes, with a gentleman's carriage and an assassin's arsenal—his fastball and curve. His last six seasons are mythic: 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He threw 27 complete games with a painfully arthritic arm in 1966 and then quit. He slipped into a private life fundamentally no different from his days as a beloved public icon: unfailingly true to his ideals. He always put team before self, modesty before fame and God before the World Series.
He was too many things to too many people to be pinned down for history. Was he an entertainer, a fighter of supernatural guile, a political activist, a martyr? "Here's what he really was," says George Foreman, who lost to him in one of boxing's most fabled fights. "He was brave. I'd hit him—hit him hard—and he'd just keep at me. Nobody'd ever done that before. He'd come ready to die! Now what are you going to do with a guy like that?"
His goal, the true Monster of the Midway once admitted, was to hit the ballcarrier so hard that his head came off. If the mayhem he wrought in nine NFL seasons did not include any beheadings, it wasn't for lack of effort. Butkus had range and brains, but the thing that made him an archetype—the best middle linebacker in football history—was his toughness, his Old Testament malevolence, his wet-your-pants intensity. "What I miss," he said softly a few years ago, "is the violence."
Like rock-and-roll and the Model T, Ruth was a seminal American invention. Be it his power at the plate, his popularity or his various appetites, the Babe was huge. Most amazing of all, Ruth was Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens—he was a dominant pitcher before becoming the founding father of the home run. The modern game began in 1920 when he hit 54 home runs, surpassing his own record by 25. To equal that kind of jump, McGwire would have to hit 130 this year.
Picture the last NBA shot he took (against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals), and you have his essence. It practically broke the ankles of his defender, as so many of Jordan's moves did to so many defenders over his 12½ seasons. It was dramatic, as was so much of his scoring in the clutch. And it won a championship, as he did six times for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. It's not axiomatic, you know, that someone will always come along who's better.