In a universe full of logical syllogisms, there's nothing quite like a paradox to shake you out of your reason-weary stupor. The honest politician. The ethical used-car salesman. The socially functional sports journalist.
And, of course, the sallow, sluggish, sloppy-fat athlete.
You know the kind we're talking about, Meat: those cannoli-popping creampuffs who look about as physically gifted as your rheumatic Uncle Earl. They're out of place, more than anything else; there's something off about seeing them between the lines, something disconcerting about the juxtaposition of their prodigal flab with so much lean athletic grace. They don't belong, is the point, but still they're there—and they're getting the job done, which only makes the whole scene all the more dissonant. Bottom line: it just doesn't make sense, when you really try to get your head around it; it offends nothing less than your divinely-apportioned capacity for rational thought, because if these dudes—these ponderous, plodding pigs—can make a living playing sports—
Well Meat, where exactly does that leave you?...
Number Five: David Wells
In the long and storied history of Major League baseball, seventeen pitchers have tossed perfect games...but only one of them did it with a screaming hangover. While battling a case of gout. With nacho cheese stains on the front of his jersey. Of all the things Wells will be remembered for—two World Series rings, 230-plus career wins, an ERA that grew more bloated than his waistline at the end of his career—his perfecto certainly takes the cake (Mmmm...cake); it's a once-in-a-lifetime sort of achievement, really, a feat that forever ties the southpaw to such legends as Cy Young and Sandy Koufax. Not bad work for a degenerate drunk trapped in a pro bowler's body.
Number Four: George Foreman (the Redux)
Like Elvis Presley before him, Foreman cut two very different figures over the course of his career: skinny George and fat George. Skinny George was a force to be reckoned with, a scowling, six-foot, three-inch mauler who won an Olympic gold medal at Mexico City in 1968 and clubbed his way to the heavyweight title in 1973. As for Fat George, well—the cat was still a force to be reckoned with (just ask Michael Moorer), but there was something decidedly unmenacing about him, something almost cute—cuddly, even—beneath all those layers of amorphous chub. Throw in the depressing cookie-cutter domesticity of the Foreman grill, in fact, and Fat George could actually almost be your rheumatic Uncle Earl—only with a better right cross, of course, because old Earl was usually pretty deep into the bourbon by the time he decided to start throwing punches...
Number Three: John Daly
Sure, golfers only marginally qualify as athletes to begin with, and the Daly-as-Slob angle has been worked to exhaustion over the years...but my God, Meat: res ipsa loquitor, right? Between the boozing and the smoking and the gee-John-maybe-you-oughta-go-with-the-salad-for-lunch physique, the former PGA and British Open champ isn't just an unathletic athlete; he's an anti-athlete, a living, wheezing refutation of everything we ever thought we knew about the physical arts. If nothing else, though, we can say this much in Daly's defense: the guy knows how to carry his man boobs with at least a modicum of grace and dignity. Some of his colleagues on the Tour—hey you with the green jacket and the Eskimo Pie all over your face: you getting this?—would do well to take notice...
Number Two: John Kruk
Nasty. There's no other way to describe Kruk in his prime, really: the dude was just plain pork rinds-and-pretzel crumbs nasty. Maybe it was the mullet. Or the stubble. Or the omnipresent roll of blubber that always managed to hang just so over the top of his belt. In any event, the Krukster didn't exactly strike anyone as a paragon of aesthetic elegance during his playing days...and his new gig as a sharp-dressed ESPN analyst (anyone else pity the poor Bristol lackey in charge of scrubbing the neck grease out of those fancy shirts?) hasn't done much to change his image. That said, Kruk never claimed to be anything but a toad—"I ain't an athlete," he once told a woman who chided his devil-may-care slovenliness, "I'm a ballplayer"—and he can always be proud of his victory over testicular cancer in 1994, which proved that you can lose a nut and still be a sweaty, unshaven tub of guts. Eat your heart out, Lance Armstrong. Eat your skinny little EPO-addled heart out.
Number One: Shaquille O'Neal
To clarify, Meat: bulk is not an athletic attribute. Ditto for girth, mass, and general mind-boggling ginormity. Now, we're not saying we don't love the dude—what's not to love, really?—but honestly...well, let's just call a spade a spade. Bill Russell was an athlete. Wilt Chamberlain was an athlete. Hell, Tim Duncan, much as we hate to admit it, is an athlete. Shaq, though—Shaq is more of a force than anything else. A presence, maybe. Sure, he can move a little bit, but you'd be hard-pressed to call that herky-jerky baby hook thing he does an 'athletic' maneuver. More damning: Uncle Earl, arthritic wino that he was, could still stumble out of an Easter brunch and sink six of ten free throws. Until Shaq gets his act together at the line, he'll always be more of a carnival sideshow than a genuine athlete, which, well—
Maybe the Big Aristotle and Uncle Earl have more in common than they know...