Growing up in a city that viewed basketball as, at best, a second tier sport, my favorite athlete at the time was far and away Michael Jordan. That’s not to say that I was overall a Chicago Bulls fan. At heart my allegiances were always with the Washington Bullets/Wizards, but even when they made a few playoff runs in the 1990’s there were very few on their roster who could inspire much appreciation. And even the ones that did were inevitably traded due to behavioral issues or ownership clashes.
Jordan on the other hand was the most popular athlete of his era, and unlike some stars of today, his fame came from his tremendous on the court ability as well as his impeachable desire to win. Yes, he was a pop-culture icon, a good looking man whose style mattered and whose brand nearly outshined the league itself. But when it came down to it, his ability to outwork even the scrappiest players is what made him great.
In 2001 when he came out of retirement to play for the Wizards. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic. The magic he brought to the basketball court was special. He was undoubtedly an incredibly talented man, but when you watched him will his way to success during his prime, it was the most inspiring thing imaginable. It made 10-year-olds, 30-year-olds, and old men alike believe that if they wanted something in their life, they could have it as long as they put themselves through hell to get it. That’s what is great about basketball, it allows one man to have total control of the game if he can reach the elite level of his sport.
I remember one game I attended in late December of 2001. The night before, his Airness had managed to score just six points, his lowest total in over a decade. Jordan had received masses of criticism for his decision to return to basketball in the first place, and after a performance like that, the noise got louder and louder. He was still a talented player and while his magic was still there, you could tell that it was buried under a creaky blanket of age and rust. Some night’s it would shine through, some nights he looked like a bench player at best. The previous night he had looked like an undrafted free-agent.
Sitting in a half-full MCI Center just one evening later, I witnessed Michael Jordan do something incredible. At 39-years-of-age, he looked the critics right in the face, and proved to them once again that he was the greatest athlete of all time. He went bananas, draining shot after shot after shot in the face of the Hornets. If they put a smaller guy on him, he would post them up. If they put someone with a body on him, he would drive the lane the way that made him famous all those years ago. When it was all said and done, he walked off the court, had the trainers ice his knees, and looked over to press row. He had just scored 51 points on 21-38 shooting, and he had shut up all the critics that dared to defy the king.
Last evening in the National League Championship Series, Albert Pujols went four for five with a home run and three doubles. The former National League MVP drove in five runs, scored three, and helped the St. Louis Cardinals even the series against the Milwaukee Brewers at one game apiece. He did so after receiving criticism from opposing players, the media, and even some fans who were worried that something was wrong with their star first baseman who had only amassed one hit in the previous three games, and only produced three runs in the entire post season. The 31-year-old was coming off of his worst professional season (one that by anyone else’s standards would be a career year), and with a new contract on the line, people were questioning whether his best days were behind him.
Last night though, Pujols had his Michael Jordan moment. He looked at the criticism and defied the narrative. He willed himself to single handedly beat his team’s division rivals, putting them one step closer to a World Series berth. While Michael Jordan seemingly made those moments routine in basketball, that just doesn’t happen in baseball, at least not for a position player. Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing in sports to do. Even when the game’s top all-time sluggers are giving their best hacks, so much of their success comes down to luck. Pujols though seemingly willed his way to win last night, he wouldn’t allow himself to lose. Last night he looked the Brewers square in the face and told them that this game would belong to the Cardinals.
Whether or not that is something that can last, it was a moment that was certainly special. It is performances like the one we saw from Pujols last night that makes us baseball fans, performances that leave you shocked in your seat in disbelief. For Cardinals fans, it meant one step closer to another World Series trophy, but for every baseball or sports fan who appreciates greatness and who understands what it can reflect in them, last night meant way more.
It’s nights like these that make even the most analytical fans pause. There have been quiet rumors that the Washington Nationals could be significant players in the Albert Pujols free agent sweepstakes scheduled to take place this winter. To acquire him the Nats would likely have to shell out over $200 million, and in doing so sacrifice opportunities to bring in other new players, and keep some old ones. Logistically, as a fan, I just couldn’t justify it. Why nearly double your payroll to hire one of the all-time greats who may be on their way out? Sure, he could have another two-to-three MVP caliber years, maybe, but it’s probably more likely that he will follow the trajectory of an Alex Rodriguez and slowly become no more than an above average first baseman.
Still, night’s like last night bring out the best and worst in me. It makes me want to say, “Who the hell cares? Did you see that?!”
When the Wizards decided to bring in Jordan, analytically people viewed it as a terrible move, and it was. For two years the team was hijacked so the league could relive some old magic. As a result, the Wizard’s developmental progress moved nowhere in that time, as young players simply sat back and watched as the club stumbled to a mediocre record. They were never good enough to make the playoffs, but they were also never bad enough to acquire top talent through the draft.
Regardless of the negatives though, it was fun. I wouldn’t trade those years for the world. I used to sit in my parents’ kitchen and just watch, and wait, and hope that some Jordan magic would shine through the rust. Every now and then it did, and when it did it was amazing. The Jordan moments were worth the fun, and you know what, if signing Albert Pujols cripples the franchise after four or five years, here’s hoping that the next few years are incredibly fun.