Saturday, April 4, 2009

Nate the Great and Mike Piazza

Whenever someone like Johan Santana comes from one of the provinces to play in New York, there is always a slew of articles and discussions about weather they can handle the intense media scrutiny. This is almost always a big waste of time: the Johans of the world exist on a plane of greatness that is all their own and they are going to dominate-- no matter how many Joel Shermans ask them stupid questions while they are waiting to take a shower.

This is not to say that the New York media has no impact: there is a second class of sports hero who achieves its greatness through a combination of dominance and narrative—and in these instances, the media becomes, not merely the lens through which the greatness can be perceived, but the actual author of the greatness. This frequently leads to the uncouth spectacle of the media, like so many Frankensteins (the scientist, not the monster), feverishly trying to rip apart the creature into which they had just laboriously managed to breathe life. Mike Piazza, formerly of the Mets, and the Knicks’ Nate Robinson are both good examples of this phenomenon.

If he had put his mind to it, Johan Santana could probably have been a better catcher than Mike Piazza; I don’t think that there is any doubt that he could have been a better baller than Nate (I see him as a point guard, getting around 15 points a game, to go along with seven each of rebounds and assists)-- yet both of those players are or were far more important to the identity of their team than Santana is to the current Mets. Both were poorly regarded players (Piazza taken miserably late in the draft* because it was widely believed that he could never field or hit and Nate nearly a foot shorter than many of his fellow players) who went on, not only to have productive careers, but to lead their teams; both embraced their role as hero-of-the-everyman, winning over the fans of the franchise in ways that the Santanas, despite (or perhaps because of) their dominance, will never be able to.

Piazza, of course, was a superstar when he came to New York, but during his time here he inevitably found himself in the center of the team’s most intense situations: his feud with Clemmens, the rumors about his sexuality, his quest for the catcher’s home-run record, and his towering home-run in the first game played in New York after 9-11. Nate is more directly engaged with the fans than any of the other Knicks: he encourages the crowd to cheer during games, part of his free-throw routine includes a salute to acknowledge people that he met playing on-line video games, and he will occasionally take the microphone before games-- to either thank the fans or apologize for the state of the team.

The spotlights that the two men inhabited, however, existed before they arrived and will still exist, focused on other players, when the two of them have faded into obscurity. The narratives existed, and were only waiting for the people willing to act them out; the crowds existed and were only waiting for the appropriate object on which to focus their affection.

It is in light of this fact that I would point out that both men probably took steroids. Only one boy, in the entire high school, can be cast as Hamlet in the school play; and while many might crave the attention, the odds will always favor the ones who need it and are willing to either flirt with the drama teacher or poison their own fathers in order to get their Stanislavsky on.

Nate’s juicing, of course, is purely a matter of my speculation. Nate’s shortness, particularly on a court with other NBA players, is so obvious that it is easy to miss the fact that he is built like a sawed-off Schwarzenegger. Additionally, the frenzy that he gets into when he is either at his best or his worst is, at least, suspiciously similar to the thing called ‘roid rage. Finally, as someone “5’9” in sneakers” trying to have a career in the NBA he would have to be insane (or insaner) to not do everything in his power to give himself an advantage—such as bulking up with performance enhancing drugs.

Even though they have yet to accuse him of juicing, and thereby soiling the immaculate purity of the game of professional basketball, the New York media has never lacked reasons to abuse Nate Robinson. Rather than dwell on the delightful awesomeness of the crazy little man who carved himself a niche in the NBA, they have chosen to berate him for being macho and immature: vilifying him for his role in the 2006 brawl with the Nuggets and calling him out for taking too many impossible shots. I remember reading an article in The Post from the 06-07 season that contrasted the juvenile antics of Robinson with the steadiness and dedication of Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury. As recently as last week, The Post ran an article about how Nate should be suspended for an altercation with New Orleans’ Chris Paul, in a rare game that Knicks actually won.

Paradoxically, while Nate fights too often, Piazza did not fight enough. Piazza (who was never openly accused of steroids during his playing time, either) was always called out for being too soft and seen as something of a prim Donna and a metro-sexual (at best) wuss. Again, the New York press opted not to worship the player that had come out of nowhere and achieved greatness, and instead set about diligently trying to dynamite the statue that they had helped to erect themselves.

It seems that one of the principals of late capitalism is that “we the people” are to be denied our folk heroes. Adulation is reserved for the LeBron James’ of the world, the god-like players with whom we manifestly have nothing in common. The players that we might relate to, the ones who acknowledge that they are living out all of our dreams, must always be reduced to tragic, incomplete figures: their flaws, either manufactured or magnified, taking up far more ink than the tale of how one of us conquered the world’s brightest stage.

*In thinking about what different animals the NBA and MLB are, it is worth noting that Nate was taken late in the first of only two rounds of the NBA draft, while Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round of the MLB draft, meaning that nearly two thousand players had been drafted ahead of him. Additionally, while the NBA draft covers the entire world, the MLB draft only applies to domestic players: Latin American players are generally signed by sweaty men with sunglasses, a radar-gun, and a brief-case full of cash. Of course, the two drafts are not actually analogous events: the equivalent to Piazza’s late drafting in Nate’s biography, was when he made his college basketball team as a walk-on, having gone to school on a football scholarship. When Nate was taken in the first round of the draft (fellow Knick David Lee was actually the very last pick of that first round) it was sort of like a 62nd round pick, on the strength of a good showing in the lower levels of the farm system, being called up to triple-A.

1 comment:

Sam said...

As I was writing this I felt weird about the fact that I kept of referring to the white guy by his last name, and the black guy by his first. In the end, I decided to keep it that way, simply because it seemed far more natural. Nate also shares Robinson with quite a lot of people, but Mike pretty much has the Piazza market cornered. It did occur to me, after doing a quick survey in my brain, that it generally seems far more normal to refer to basketball players (particularly black ones) by their first names, while it almost always seems more natural to refer to baseball players by their last names. Even Lastings Milledge, a black baseball player with a first name that is more distinctive than his last, is still ‘Milledge’ to most people, rather than ‘Lastings.’ I guess that I don’t think that this is all that cool, but I also don’t really know what to do about it.