Then Barry Bonds got indicted, completely dwarfing that A-Rod idea roughly 25 minutes after I finished typing it up. After 35 minutes of irrational ranting and raving about asterisks and Don Shula and hat sizes, I decided that I’ve already said everything I have to say on the subject on Aug. 15:
“…because money and fame and records are the units in which our society measures athletic greatness, Bonds is—innocent until proven guilty—one of the greatest athletes ever to live.
“Unless he cheated, in which case, he’s one of the greatest cheaters of all time.”
* * *
Even if I only count people I know personally, I think there are at least 10 solid examples of what I think society should consider in every discussion of greatness. I won’t list all, but I want to highlight Caleb Marsh.
As far as I know, Caleb is not famous (yet!) or independently wealthy (yet!). He does sit pretty high on Tabor’s all-time list of wide-receiver statistics.
But it is not fame or fortune or statistical glory that (I think) should spark talk of an athlete’s greatness. I think what makes sports important is that brief moment after the ball is thrown, when the outcome hangs in doubt for a split-second.
In that moment, when the play is made or not made, an athlete’s skills are revealed, but those skills are only half of what makes an athlete great.
The other half of an athlete’s greatness happens in the next moment, when the outcome of the play is known and the crowd cheers or groans. A person’s character has a way of showing through just then, and that so many who make the better play pause to showboat or taunt their opponent only serves to magnify those who pick themselves up, toss the ball to the referee and head back to their huddle or sideline.
I’m not a Caleb Marsh scholar—the only person I know of who might qualify is Brett Thiessen, who compiled the stats I mentioned and untold numbers of other football statistics from boxscores and newspapers stored in the Tabor archives. But in that moment when a quarterback needs a receiver who would lay out for a chance to catch a pass with his fingernails, I don’t know of anybody better suited for the job than him.
And I remember consistently being impressed with what I saw him do after the play was over.
* * *
The biggest problem with the Barry Bonds story isn’t even the mess related to his drug use. The biggest problem is with us—sports fans, I mean—because we’re the people who keep propping up rich and famous athletes as if they’re greater than they actually are.
And that’s the last time I’m ever mentioning Barry Bonds in writing.
* * *
I have a friend who thinks that if God exists at all, God is the programmer of a very elaborate computer simulation and we’re all just collections of electrons swirling through a box of switches and circuits on someone’s desk.
It’s a good thing he’s not a football fan, or he’d have his beliefs shaken to the core by watching the New England Patriots play video-game football while everyone else keeps trying to play real life football against them.
My open letter to Bill Belichick:
Please stop beating teams by five touchdowns. You’re ruining the NFL for me. Seriously, this isn’t fun to watch.