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A Magazine of Ideas

The Unnaturals

Friday, February 22, 2013

What to think when a player looks like a rocker, a Fiat mechanic, a cable guy, a terrorist — anything but the very competitive athlete he is.

My favorite tennis player is Marcos Baghdatis, who is currently ranked 36th in the world. With a Lebanese father and a Cypriot mother, he has a splendidly Levantine face, framed by his moderately long hair and double-stubble or perma-stubble beard. Baghdatis’s best year was 2006; at 21 years old, he made it to the finals of the Australian Open and the semis at Wimbledon, and ended the season ranked eighth in the world. He appears to be in decent shape at present, but I have seen him looking paunchy in the middle and soft in the upper chest; in him a fat man, I should guess, is perpetually struggling to get out.

I suspect that higher-ranked players are not pleased when they draw Baghdatis in the early rounds of tournaments. There is nothing notable about his game, except that he is a scrapper — the sort of player who takes a set or two off bigger, higher-ranked players, and sometimes beats them. In 2010, he defeated both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer when each was ranked first in the world. He does not take losing easily, and one year at the Australian Open, ticked off by his own play, he broke four rackets during a changeover between games.

What I prize in Baghdatis is that he looks like a rocker, a Fiat mechanic, a cable guy, a terrorist — anything but the very competitive tennis player he is. He is a prominent contemporary member of a club I think of as the unnaturals: superior athletes who do not look the part.

Another is Tony Gwynn, who played 20 seasons for the San Diego Padres and won eight batting-average titles — he is perhaps the best of all the unnaturals. Smallish and pudgy, Gwynn looked more like a short-order cook than the great baseball player he was. He seemed not to run but to waddle, though very quickly. Judged on build alone, he shouldn’t have been allowed in the major leagues. What he lacked in natural endowments, Gwynn made up for in instinct and intelligence; he was one of the great percentage hitters in the history of modern baseball.

One year at the Australian Open, ticked off by his own play, Baghdatis broke four rackets during a changeover between games.

In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis makes the point that the old-line baseball scouts were suckers for ballplayers with standard athletic bodies. They preferred guys 6’4” or 6’5” with deep chests, broad shoulders, and narrow waists: Darryl Strawberrys, Dave Winfields. They tended to pass on the less-godlike-looking mortals. By these criteria, of course, Babe Ruth, with his heavy torso and flamingo legs, would never have made it into the majors. Lewis also wrote about an overweight prospect who played catcher for the University of Alabama. A scout reported that should he run down to first base in corduroys, he could start a fire. The problem was that the kid had an impressively high on-base percentage. Another unnatural.

One of the best athletes I grew up with was a boy named Paul (“Chops”) Friedman. Chops was a playground and public-park athlete. He was chunky, with short legs and heavy thighs, and no speed at all. What he did have was high athletic intelligence — he made no mistakes or inept judgments — and a splendid pair of hands. He played third base in softball, where neither grounders nor line-drives ever got by him; and in two-hand touch football he was an unerringly accurate short passer.

The most specialized boy athlete I grew up with was Dickie (“The Owl”) Levenson. The Owl — mix metaphors, add salt, and shake well — was a one-trick pony. He came by his nickname through his flat and beaky countenance and soft, stocky body. The Owl had a deadly jump shot and a vertical leap of roughly three-quarters of an inch. His want of mobility didn’t matter, for his jump shot always found the basket. His game was two-man half-court — it’s difficult to imagine him running full court — at which his jump shot, which must have had more than 90 percent accuracy, made him unbeatable. You never wanted to play against The Owl for money.

When I was a kid, at nearby Tam O’Shanter Country Club outside Chicago, a golf hustler named Marty Stanovich, a short tubby man with an unorthodox swing, made his living gambling. He needed only a few-stroke handicap to beat such pros of the day as Sammy Snead or Lew Worsham. A money golfer, the higher the stakes the cooler “The Fat Man,” as Stanovich was called, became. Local mobsters used to follow him around, betting on him. He refused to recognize pressure, and could sink a 15-foot uphill putt during an earthquake.

Old-line baseball scouts were suckers for ballplayers with standard athletic bodies.

Charles Barkley was far from a natural. When playing college ball at Auburn, he was known as the “Round Mound of Rebound,” a sobriquet earned by the nearly perfect 360-degree circumference of his head and what appeared to be the pudginess of his body. Barkley was smaller than most small or power forwards, the two positions he played during his career. Yet he was a perennial rebounding leader. On defense he was a great shot blocker and ball stealer. He made up for being undersized and overweight through his agility, hustle, and aggressiveness. He was as heterodox in his opinions as in his play. When a reporter cited a remark made in his autobiography, Barkley claimed to have been misquoted.

Normal by most standards, at 5’10” Doug Flutie was positively dwarfish for a professional football quarterback, a mite among mammoths. This made him seem a permanent underdog, and every game he played as a pro seemed a replay of David and Goliath. Flutie often came through in the crunch, usually in a dramatic way. He did so most famously when, as quarterback at Boston College, he threw his Hail Mary pass to defeat the University of Miami as the clock ran out. You had to have a cold heart to cheer against Doug Flutie.

The magic of unnatural athletes is that, through their unorthodox talents, they demonstrate that there is no single, grooved, established way of winning. By eluding the standard formulas for athletic success, unnatural athletes alter one’s notion of acceptable form, change the dynamics of play, and widen the possibilities generally. By showing that there is more than one way to do things, they enrich the games they play and make them much more interesting. May they always be in plentiful supply.

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: On the subject of sports, Epstein also writes “The Artist Athlete,” “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” and “The Long, Hot Summer.” Robert McHenry offers “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” Jon Entine discusses “What Makes a Great Olympian? Sometimes It's Genetics.”

Image by Fred Wollenberg / Bergman Group