Over the last few weeks I’ve been regaling a non-baseball fan friend with anecdotes about former pitcher Greg Maddux. Maddux’s recent induction into the baseball Hall of Fame has brought to light some bizarre but hilarious stories about the really really weird stuff he used to do (and still does, he made a fart joke in his HoF acceptance speech). Notables include a running “your mom” series with a beat reporter and peeing on rookies in the shower while pretending to engage them in serious conversation (Total Frat Move has a nice roundup here, read if you dare).
Regardless of what happened off the field, mostly harmless though disgusting as it might have been, Maddux will always be remembered as a baseball genius and one of the best of all time. His 355 career wins are good enough for the eighth highest ever. Most of the time pitchers with his career numbers had great fastballs and incredible movement on their pitches, but Maddux didn’t. He relied on pinpoint control, exhaustive preparation, and a brilliant awareness of hitter tendencies (teammate and likely future Hall of Famer John Smoltz claimed Maddux could often predict where the ball would go based on who was at the plate and the upcoming pitch). He was also a fantastic defensive player, winning a major league record 18 Gold Glove awards. Because of his incredible ability to win games on a consistent basis, fellow players and coaches were fine putting up with his shit. Many members of the media really enjoyed him too. Eccentric is one of many words to describe him.
This brings us to another sports genius; a man who is completely dedicated to his craft – both athlete and student; a man whose off-the-field actions also cause us to furrow our brows. I’m speaking of Richard Sherman, cornerback for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Unlike Maddux, Sherman is still active and in the prime of his career. Given the unpredictability of injuries, especially in football, it’s hard to say if Sherman will go down as one of the greatest of all time like Maddux, but if he stays healthy it’s very possible, if not probable. At the least, his spectacular play to clinch last year’s NFC Championship game will be remembered. As will his post-game outburst while being interviewed by a sideline reporter. It’s a simple fact that Sherman’s comments were unsportsmanlike and rude. But in the aftermath he was assumed by many to be unintelligent and vulgar, a thug. Five minutes of online research clearly demonstrates this is not the case. While at Stanford and excelling on the field, Sherman also earned a degree in communications, graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA. He has donated the time and money to start a foundation, Blanket Coverage, which is dedicated to providing school supplies to kids in need. He’s also a very eloquent speaker and writer. Very few boys who grow up in Compton reach the kinds of levels he has and we should admire and celebrate his hardest-won victories, which happened far from the field.
It’s far too simple to say that we revere Maddux and condemn Sherman because one is white and the other is black. Such stark choices are almost never made like that in today’s society, thank goodness. And of course it’s possible to condemn some of Sherman’s actions without being racist, I just did that (again, anyone who thinks those comments weren’t unsportsmanlike and a bad example is just wrong, I’d love to do away entirely with post-game sideline interviews, but they exist and we should expect our sports heroes to be more composed than he was), but we often allow for more nuance in discussing people who look like Maddux than in people who look like Sherman. Those who dominate their crafts have to be very weird in some ways, being as good as they are at anything is very weird by definition. It’s not ridiculous to say that a very similar kind of brilliant and beautiful, but dark and twisted genius lives in both of them. How else would they be so compelling?