Of dogs, cats, and sports heroes

Who is the greatest sports hero in Boston history? Beats me.

The question, an age-old one, has flared up recently as Tom Brady has climbed relentlessly up the heights of the Mount Olympus of sports gods, now with six Super Bowl titles hanging from his belt. How does that compare to the eleven NBA championships won by Bill Russell? Or the two Stanley Cups in the abbreviated career of Bobby Orr? Or the zero World Series titles that Ted Williams’s teams took home? And what about Brockton’s Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history? He reigned in the days when the holder of the title was by definition a huge international celebrity.

Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges, or, perhaps more to the point, cats and dogs. Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey require different specific skills. An athlete needs extraordinary athletic ability to just to compete in each of them at the highest level, let alone be truly great.

But getting around on a fastball is not the same as catching a pass in traffic, or hitting a three-pointer with the clock running down; and none of them can be compared to blasting a slapshot from the blue line, much less making the save on it. To be sure, they all require a combination of strength and grace, almost super-human hand-to-eye coordination, and razor-sharp reflexes, but they are not the same.

Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players are not just different breeds of athletes, they are different species.

Let’s say that football players are the dogs of the athletic world. They all play the same game, but their roles in it call for different breeds. For example, mastiffs and Saint Bernards play in the line, positions requiring great bulk and strength to go along with athletic ability. The linebackers are German shepherds, with the size to plug up holes in the line and the speed to drop back into pass coverage. Defensive backs are made up of Dalmations; sleek, fast, and fierce defenders of their territory, just as their canine counterparts were bred to protect at all costs the horses who drew the fire wagons. On offense, greyhounds are wide receivers for obvious reasons. The tight ends are somewhat the same, but they are wolfhounds, possessed of not quite the speed of their greyhound counterparts but with the size to play in the line to help pave the way for the terriers, or running backs. Terriers are a breed known for their determination and fearlessness, able to use their quickness to race around opponents; or, in the case of pit bulls, straight at them. Finally, there are the poodles, or quarterbacks; they are the glamor dogs of the sport, perhaps the most intelligent of all the breeds. They get all the attention when things go well and all the scrutiny when they don’t.

To carry the species analogy a step further, let’s say that baseball players are the cats of the sports world. Cats come in all sizes and breeds, as do baseball players. Pitchers alone could be any number of breeds; Roger Clemens was a lion, deadly and intimidating to all who faced him; Pedro Martinez was a panther, more graceful but no less lethal. David Ortiz was a Bengal tiger (as opposed to the Detroit kind), capable of striking with a suddenness (swing of the bat?) that was frightening in its efficiency. Mookie Betts is a cheetah, slightly smaller but a killer with breath-taking speed.
How much basketball do you suppose Bobby Orr, who was on the ice full-time from his early teens, ever played? Do you think that Bill Russell ever laced on a pair of ice skates?
One was known for his mesmerizing skating ability and his passing and shot making expertise – all with a stick and at break-neck speed; the other was prized for his otherworldly shot blocking and rebounding skills. How can you compare them as players? You can’t. At least, that’s what I think.
That’s not to say that great athletes can’t and don’t excel at multiple sports. They can, and the examples are many. John Havlicek, who grew up in tiny Lansing, Ohio (population approximately 500), was an all-state quarterback in high school; he was so good, in fact, that Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach at Ohio State, wooed him earnestly to become a Buckeye. Havlicek did go to Ohio State, but on a basketball scholarship, leaving Hayes to lament for the next four years that the school had the best quarterback in the Big Ten, but he wasn’t on the team.

Havlicek’s reputation was such that, although he never played a minute of football in college, he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, then one of the elite teams in the NFL. He tried out for the Browns, but at wide receiver, not quarterback. He was the last man cut when Coach Paul Brown decided to keep Gary Collins, who turned out to be a perennial all-star. Still, Brown was impressed enough with Havlicek to invite him back to pre-season camp for six consecutive years, but by then he was a superstar with the Celtics and possessor of five NBA championship rings (the number would eventually swell to eight).

For more than thirty years, Havlicek ran a celebrity fishing tournament off the shores of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. At one of the early ones I found myself paired in the same boat with Bob Cousy. Cooz had never cast a fishing line and had to be shown how by the boat’s captain, an experienced fisherman. Within minutes of learning the technique Cousy was casting his line well beyond that of the captain. As for my casts, they were well suited for stray fish who happened to swim too close to the side of the boat.

Marciano once had a tryout as a catcher with the Chicago Cubs, but his throwing arm was deemed too weak for him to be a prospect. That’s the same arm that threw some of the most devastating punches in all the annals of boxing.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great athletes are different from you and me; well, different from me, anyway.