Hustle and Flow

On Mike and Mike this morning, Tim Legler said about the Nets’ performance in Miami last night that they were not prepared for Miami’s quickness and aggressiveness in the paint. On one level, this strikes me as a ridiculous comment. The two teams have played one another four times this year. They scout one another and watch tape. Furthermore, veterans on the Nets, like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, have played the Big Three more than a dozen times since they congregated in Miami in 2010. The Heat are the two-time defending champs. LeBron is LeBron. There is no unknown quantity here.

Instead, there is the ebb and flow in elite athletics. No one plays at the top of their game *all* the time. Some nights, players are “locked in,” performing at or near their peak abilities. Such was the case with CP3 Monday night. It’s not really a question of whether he was just trying harder that night. It’s just as likely that on nights when shots aren’t falling and the game comes less easily, that players feel like they have to exert *more* energy than they do in a game in which they just feel in the flow. An unrealistic notion pervades sports commentary – or, perhaps, it’s a mythical beast – that of the athlete who gives it “110%” every time out. I am doubtful that such a creature exists. Do some athletes exert more energy more of the time than others? Of course. But it’s unserious to maintain that there are some athletes who never take a play off, or save their breath, or decide they’ll live to fight another day.

Mariano Rivera’s reported comments, from his new book, about the differences between Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia, are based on some of these same false premises. Yes, it’s true – there were times when Cano didn’t run his hardest to first base on a routine grounder. And Cano’s athleticism – so easy and fluid, makes it easy to form the impression that he’s never really trying *that* hard. But baseball is a game of grinding concentration, of repeating the same motions over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times over the course of a season, in the teeth of extraordinary competition against the other best players in the entire world. That Cano has performed so consistently at the exceptionally high level he has makes it implausible to me that he’s just kind of a lazy player. Does he swing as hard as Pedroia on every pitch? No. Does he burn with the same fire and passion to be the best, the way Mariano thinks Pedroia does? Perhaps not. But Andrew Marchand is right. He’s a better player than Pedroia (and don’t get me wrong, the laser show is a hell of a ballplayer himself). And you can be sure that even the max-effort Pedroia doesn’t bust it down the line as hard as he can on every single routine grounder.

Among the kids-today laments is that contemporary ballplayers, including Cano, just don’t hustle the way old time ballplayers did. Greenberg complained about that this morning while describing how frustrating he finds Cano’s habits. According to Greenie, that kind of effort is a lost art. Greenberg grew up in the 1970s. Like me, he was treated to an endless diet of praise for Charlie Hustle. No one hustled like Pete Rose, who chugged to first base even after a walk, for crying out loud.

But note Rose’s nickname: Charlie ‘Hustle.’ Not Charlie “Just-a-typical-ball-player-for-his-era.” Let me assure you that Boog Powell wasn’t busting it down the line every time he made contact. Bill James once wrote about Butch Hobson, the Red Sox third baseman on some of those iconic Sox teams in the late 1970s. James noted that everyone lauded Hobson’s hustle, his all-out effort. James also pointed out that this wasn’t necessarily a smart way to approach the game. Baseball is not football. It’s a game played over the long haul. Fans loved Hobson’s willingness to crash into dugouts in pursuit of foul pops, but the result was repeated injury and inability to stay healthy and in the lineup. Among Cano’s virtues is that he plays 160 games a year. If that’s the price of the occasional less-than-one-hundred-percent-effort, I think the Mariners are willing to live with that. As well they should.

Oh, and no, the world won’t come to an end if little eight-year old Johnny watches his favorite player give less than maximum effort on occasion. That will be a good opportunity for parents to remind their kids that their heroes are, after all, human beings.

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