I just finished reading a Sports Illustrated today from a few months ago, the College Football Preview issue. I was doing this to see if their predictions were holding up. Anyways, I got through the issue and made it to No. 17 in the polls, which was USC (Isn't it kind of mean putting USC in the polls in the first place, if they have no chance to even make it to a Bowl game?). The article seemed to focus on sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and his progression as the starting QB. Barkley remarked at one point in the article:
"I think I can now be that Level 10 athlete."
I thought to myself, What in the name of God does that mean? Are there level nine athletes? Level eight? Maybe even level two? Has this ever been established? So I decided to take a shot. And Matt Barkley, you have a long way to go to be a level 10 athlete, according to my criteria. Now, Barkley may have been referring to a "collegiate" level 10 athlete, but I am not talking about college, I am talking about the whole state, the whole experience of being an athlete.
Level Zero: Squandered Potential
Examples: Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell
These are the guys that get sports fans, sports personalities, sports whatever riled up. These are guys who had all the talent in the world, but squandered it basically because they were too lazy.
These are athletes who for whatever reason decided that being a professional athlete was too tough. I am not saying it is easy, it is definitely one of the most demanding jobs out there. But most great athletes do not care, they just push through the pain and suffering.
These guys did not. These guys have inspired entire cities to be infuriated with them. What other profession is there that can have entire cities want to rip your face off? Politician is the only one I can think of.
Russell and Leaf are the two biggest examples out there. Both guys had enormous potential coming out of college, but let their laziness and appetites take over. There is a difference between the two guys however, in how they were portrayed coming out of college. With Leaf, there were a few reports of questionable behavior. Were there ever really any with Russell? Other than his weight there was nothing, and it was hard to imagine he would balloon into a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade version of himself.
The celebrity example of this is obviously Lindsay Lohan. She showed talent in Mean Girls most notably, but then fell into partying, drugs and alcohol. She also has a reputation around Hollywood as a movie-killer, someone who shows up late and argues with the director--Just like Russell and Leaf! Hey guys, you are just like Lindsay Lohan!
Level 1: College Burnouts
Examples: Eric Crouch, Andre Ware, Danny Manning
This is very similar to level zero, but these guys may have worked hard, but still did not have what it took to succeed in the pros. Guys who succeed in high-flying offenses in college (Like every Texas Tech or Hawaii quarterback for the past ten years) but could not see that success translate in the more organized setting of the pros.
Some were undersized, like Crouch, the Heisman Trophy winner from Nebraska. Some were consistently injured, like Manning and his knees. For whatever reason, these guys just could not translate to the pros. The only thing is, guys like these are less sinners than the level zero guys because it seems as if these guys made an effort to not be a useless pile of trash.
Level Two: There Because of Desperation
Examples: Yuniesky Betancourt
Betancourt gets shelled by sports bloggers for his low OBP and the fact that he probably should not be on a major league roster. Betancourt actually has the lowest OBP and slugging percentage out of any major league baseball player, which I assume also includes pitchers. Betancourt has a job in the major leagues for one reason: desperation.
Would the Yankees or any high quality team ever touch Betancourt with anything more than a Double A contract? No, they do not need to. Teams like the Royals take any players they can get, due to injuries and low payroll. You see this in every professional sports, guys just there because teams need to fill a spot.
Level 2.5: Perennial Bench-stars
Examples: Brian Scalabrine, Adam Morrison
These are guys that have somehow managed to float around in the league for years, but will never be anything more than bench players. In fact, I am pretty sure Scalabrine has spent more time in a suit than in a jersey this season. And no, he was not injured. Yet, Scalabrine has made $15 million the past five years, just for sitting down extremely well.
Level 3: The Temptations
Examples: Darryl Strawberry, Len Bias, Doc Gooden
Saved for guys who have fallen into the temptations of various vices, whether it be drugs or alcohol. All three of these examples had their careers cut short due to cocaine, although Bias' was cut short because of his death. You could even put a guy like Mickey Mantle in this category, because he could have been so much better if he was not showing up to games hungover.
I am not going to include guys like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, because the drugs they used were in a sick pursuit to be better than everybody else. These guys used drugs because they had a psychological dependency on them. I am not saying one is better than the other, or one is more acceptable than the other, but it is easier to feel sorry for the Strawberry's and Bias' of the world, basically.
Level 4: Scrappers
Examples: David Eckstein
Although these players may not have any discernible talent, they bust their ass every time they step on a field, a court, a pitch, a bowling alley or wherever. Whatever they lack in talent, they make up in hustle, hard work and hustle--otherwise known as the Three H's. So when you see me refer to a guy as a 3H player, you will no longer give me one of those stupid looks again.
Note: Dustin Pedroia is not to be included in this. He is a 3H player but is extremely talented. He is the only Red Sox player I do not want to stab with a rusty knife, so he has that going for him too.
Level 4.5: Journeyman
The infamous Journeyman category is broken down into two groups:
A) "The Superstar" (Examples: Gary Sheffield, Ron Artest)
These are guys with supreme talent but they have one problem: attitude. This allows them to bounce from team to team, performing well but being run out of town in a year or two. Sheffield and Artest probably have the poorest attitudes out of any players of the past 20 years, and this contributes to them never finding a steady home.
B) "Role Players" (Examples: Mike Myers, Mike Morgan, Matt Stairs)
These guys move from team from team a lot because although their role is always in demand, they are dispensable. There is always a team that needs a left-handed specialist, so that is where Myers comes in. When you need a righty, Morgan is your man. These guys are valuable to a team, but dispensable enough that you do not want to keep them on the payroll for more than a year or two since there is bound to be another specialist. If you need a bat off the bench, Stairs is the guy. The problem with his position is, there are an infinite number of players who can come off the bench in Major League Baseball.
Level 5: Hype
Examples: Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor, Bryce Harper
This is where Barkley falls in the overall state of things. He is not a level 10 athlete, yet. But these guys are the most likely to reach that area. These are the college stars, the guys who have never played in the pros but are showered with expectations. Think of these guys as the cast of the Harry Potter movies. Having only appeared in really one major movie for their entire lives, they will soon have to make the jump into other forms of entertainment. My guess is Hermione will have the best success, because I am sure you cared.
Level 5.5: One-Shot Wonders
Examples: Ickey Woods, Buster Douglas, Mark Fidyrich
These are kind of like the level one guys, except they had a great season in the pros instead of a great collegiate career. Then they burned out too. Woods and Fidyrich were gone because of injuries, and Douglas decided to pull a JaMarcus Russell and weigh about 900 pounds. Douglas beating Mike Tyson is like Carl Spackler actually winning the Masters, it was so improbable. The seasons these guy had are the equivalent of the one-hit wonder in the music industry. Buster Douglas is the Macarena of this category.
Are they better athletes than the Hype guys? No, not by a long shot. But they actually have proved themselves on the professional level, albeit one season.
Level 6: Congrats, You Get to Go to (Insert City Here) For the Week!
Examples: Gilbert Arenas, Vince Carter
Why cares about team success, when you can just take 30 shots a game and win a three-day trip to Orlando. Guys like Arenas and Carter are really only concerned with personal success. This is not saying they are talentless. Their careers are just ruined in my eyes because they never made a concerned effort to help their teams. Carter's cousin, Tracy McGrady is also in this category. Has there ever been a family that has been worse in the playoffs than McGrady-Carter? I dare you, try and find one.
Level 6.5: All-stars Who Give Two Craps About Team Success
Examples: Everyone except Arenas and McGrady-Carter
Level 7: So Close
Examples: Karl Malone, Charles Barkley
Malone, Barkley, Ted Williams and Ernie Banks all had careers marked with a little asterisk, all because they never won a championship. Still, all four of those guys had remarkable careers in which they transcended their various sports. But they never won, and isn't that what you play sports for? Dan Marino and Dan Fouts are two other guys just like this. I think it is something with the name Dan and football.
Entertainment example: Martin Scorcese--until The Departed finally won him Best Director. Seriously, Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas in 1990? If the Academy knew that Waterworld was going to happen, they never would have given Costner the freedom he got after winning Best Director and Best Picture.
Level 7.5: Last Chance
Examples: Karl Malone, Gary Payton
A subcategory of the "So Close"--when aging superstars realize it is getting late in their careers and sell out in order to get a championship. The 2004 Lakers with Malone and Payton are probably the best example of this.
Level 8: Winner
Example: Robert Horry, Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter
Maybe not as talented as the guys in level 7, but these guys get it done. Horry and Berra did whatever it took to ensure victory for their respective teams. For Horry it was being a role player who made big shots. For Berra it was being a solid hitter who worked great with pitchers. For Jeter it was doing all the little things. They may not be the biggest stars on the team (Horry had Shaq and Kobe, Berra had Mantle, Jeter was). In sports, the most important thing is to win, and this is just what these guys did.
Level 9: Best In the Game
Examples: Albert Pujols, Lionel Messi, Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, Peyton Manning
The undisputed best players around in their respective sports. All of these guys have won championships except for, well, "King" James. You know what, maybe we take James down. But he is the most talented basketball player alive. You reach this level when you are far and away the best active player in the sport. How do you reach this plateau you ask? Statistical dominance. All five of these guys' stats are way better than anything else out there.
Level 10: Legendary
Examples: Larry Bird, Willy Mays, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig
Most of these guys are level 9 or the best of the level 6.5. These are not quite level 11 (Yes there is an eleventh level), but they are considered legends for a few reasons:
1) Did something to transcend the sport
2) Statistical dominance
3) Did things that people still talk about today
5) Remembered with reverence by the fans of the team they played for
Basically, if you fit the qualifications for all five, you are a legend.
Level 11: G.O.A.T.
This rarefied air is reserved for the greatest of all-time. Not just self-bestowed G.O.A.T. status (Ali, no way you are the best boxer ever), or any gray areas (baseball and football has too many guys vying for the top spot). There are really only three G.O.A.T.s.
1) Michael Jordan
2) Wayne Gretzky
The beautiful thing about all three guys is that there will never be anyone else like them. There will probably never be another Michael Jordan, and we will be forced to compare the Jonathan Bender's (Level 1) of the world to His Airness. There will never another Jordan, another Gretzky, or another Pele, just imitations.