I was in Albuquerque on Friday to watch the Isotopes take on the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. It was pure minor league baseball with all the things minor league entails: Pocket-sized park, crowd (8,300), ticket prices ($12.50 for good seats!), parking prices (totally close for $5), teams I didn’t care about, and players I’d never heard of. Except beer prices. Those were major league all the way ($8!).
After the Isotopes pitcher lost his no-hitter after 5 2/3 innings, I had to wonder: Beyond the joys of being at the ballpark, not to mention the dancing batboy who thoroughly overshadowed the goofy mascot, what was there to watch?
And then I remembered: These are world-class ballplayers, even at – especially at – Triple-A – every player on each team’s 25-man roster, even the guy who suits up every game and never plays and definitely won’t make it to the bigs. And yet, batting against the suckiest minor league pitcher, 99.999 percent of the world’s population wouldn’t even get near the ball.
I like to think of pro basketball in this sense. Teams can suit up 13 players for each game, and of these players, a couple will not even get a hint of game action, unless either team is winning by a huge margin near the end of the game. And if he did get in, especially against the other team’s stars, he’d be terrible: Missing shots, committing ill-advised fouls, getting the ball stolen, being out of position. He sucks! And the fans will let him know: Hey 24, you suck!
But the thing is, any NBA player, even the guy who wears his warm-ups all season, could walk onto any playground in New York City, any YMCA league, into any gym in the world and absolutely dominate. And he sucks.
I remember in junior high, a teacher who knew someone who knew someone with the Denver Nuggets invited Blair Rasmussen, the 7-foot starting center for the Nuggets, to come out after school one day to talk to some of us seventh-graders. Rasmussen was your run-of-the-mill center for a terrible NBA team that year. I remember two things from his visit. One was a seemingly forced and obligatory attempt to tell us to stay away from drugs, which he called dope (I was like, “Who calls it dope anymore?”). Then, we all walked into the gym for ol’ Rasmussen to show us how it’s done. The guy was on fire, knocking down shot after shot no matter where he was on the floor. Ten-footers: swish-swish-swish. Fifteen-footers: swish-swish-swish. Everywhere. I was like, “Duuuude, do this during the game!”
It’s like in “Airplane,” when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing co-pilot Roger Murdock, has the pesky kid Joey wanting to talk hoops:
Joey: I think you’re the greatest, but my dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense. And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try … except during the playoffs.
Roger Murdock: (breaking character) The hell I don’t! Listen, kid, I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night! Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!
The simple lesson: When world-class players play against even more world-class players in a game situation, it’s hard to grasp just how good they are.
And imagine how it is for those players. At every level they’ve ever played at – Little League, high school, college, wherever – they have been the best player on the field or floor. They likely dominated every player on the other team. They were the star, the pride of the community. And then they get to the pros, or even Triple-A, and they suck.
But we don’t have to look at the outliers of pro sports to understand talent and skill. Everywhere I look are people who do jobs I wouldn’t last a day in. I see a receptionist whose patience, stamina, and attention to detail are Herculean. I see an elementary school teacher who has a special gift of communicating with children. I see a server busting her buns waiting on a table of 20, only to walk away without a tip.
It’s easy to think that someone sucks at what they do. For any job you encounter, what experiences does that person bring? What goes on behind the scenes you don’t know about? What personal talents does it take that you don’t have? Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, and think twice about thinking people suck.