Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mothers Of The Disappeared

On the tail of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I've been ruminating on something that happens every year. There's precious little that is ever certain in this fickle world, but a few things are pretty much a lock. Politicians lie. Terrain erodes. And every playoffs, for every sport, we trot out what Charles Barkley has dubbed "The S&$% List." Sure as snow in Minneapolis and traffic in NYC, we're going to end up talking about those guys. The greats, the iconic players, who for reasons of irony, injury, or fate's capriciousness, never achieved the ultimate success in their arenas. Maybe they didn't have the right teammates, maybe they swayed or broke under pressure. Whatever happened, they remain sans championship, and that ends up defining their legacies to perhaps an unfair extent.

If you're on that list, it is guaranteed that whenever postseason tensions begin to mount, a broadcast, blog, interview, column, or some other media outlet will drag your name back into the light for a brief moment. It stinks, I know. If I were annually reminded of the one great thing I never did, in perpetuity, I'd be pretty effing bummed about it. Those guys, Barkley, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino, and all the rest, have my sympathy. But they also have their immortality. They were great enough that it seems wrong that they left the field or arena for the last time without knowing that joy. To have reached that level is an achievement of itself ... right?

I don't know about you, but every time I have to hear "The List", I get a little sad, and I suspect I'm not alone. Bottom line, we feel like they deserved it. When Steve Nash retires in a year or three, how many basketball people are going to quietly sigh because circumstances conspired to deny him a ring? At a guess, all of them.

But what about the flip side of the coin?

There are four major categories in play here: Stars who won a title, stars who never won a title, unimportant guys who never won a title ... and unimportant guys who won a title. It's that last group, the anti-"S%#T List" guys if you will, that kind of fascinates me. What is their place in our minds, and in history? How do we feel about them? How should we feel? How should they feel about themselves? Does it matter? I'm curious about these things.

Ultimately, i think our perceptions should break down into two sub-categories:

1. Guys who were not marquee names, starters, or even necessarily consistent in-game factors, who nonetheless made a few important plays at the right times. Their lesser talents didn't earn them many moments, but they made at least some of them count. However small the part played, they contributed to the championship.

2. Guys who just got really lucky and wound up on title teams without having done a single thing that even remotely justifies their "champion" status.

After a little research and a lot of internal debate, here are my go-to examples for each grouping:

The Obscure Dudes With Rings Who Deserve Them Club is represented by Mike Devereaux. The very definition of a journeyman player, Devereaux played 12 seasons in The Show with six different teams. A fifth-round draft pick for the Dodgers in the 1985 draft, he hit .254 for his career and only played in more than 100 games in 6 of his professional seasons. He hit 105 career homers and his lifetime OBP was a meager .308.

But Mike Devereaux has a World Series ring.

He earned said ring with my beloved Atlanta Braves in 1995. I'd forgotten until I looked it up, but he was actually the '95 NLCS MVP on the strength of his game-winning RBI in the 10th inning of Game 1 and a three-run homer in Game 4. That's how obscure the guy was. The NCLS MVP winner during my hometown team's championship season, and I'd almost forgotten that award. I remembered those plays, mind you, but not what they earned him. (I also think our pitching staff deserved all MVPs that year. I mean, those were big plays, but Devereaux getting that award was like Kobe's 2010 Finals MVP, totally undeserved.)

In the 1995 World Series, he had one meaningless hit and no RBIs. When you combine that NCLS and the World Series, Devereaux looks like Peja Stojakovic from this year's NBA playoffs. Peja came up huge from deep against LA (and OKC to a lesser extent), but pretty much did nothing in the Finals, to the point of being benched. Even so, without him, maybe Dallas isn't in a position to win the championship at all. In 25 years, the majority of fans will remember him in vague terms at best, the way we barely remember Devereaux now, but both guys came up clutch to get their teams to the finals. Gotta crawl before you run.

In fact, Mike Devereaux almost had two World Series rings. He was in the Dodgers organization for their improbable 1988 season, when Kirk Gibson hit one of the most legendary homeruns in MLB history, but he only played a handful of big league games that year. What if he had been in that dugout when Gibson hobbled to the plate and sent that moonshot into the stands? One ring you can potentially chalk up to a fluke. Two? That's either great timing or you contributed in some way to those titles.

Even without that second piece of jewelry, Mike Devereaux can wake up every day for the rest of his life and put that hardware on his finger if he chooses. He is a World Series champion.

But how does he feel about it, knowing that what most people remember from that Braves season is the greatest pitching staff of the 90s and the Crime Dog, Chipper, Lemke, Justice, and Bobby Cox? Gratified, thankful and joyful of the memories, I'm sure. But does he think he "earned" it? (I'm not saying he did or did not, I just wonder how guys like this feel about themselves within the context of a championship.) My guess is, he feels like that ring is rightfully his. And he should. I still don't think he deserved that NLCS MVP, but damned if those plays didn't turn the tide at some critical moments. Mike Devereaux can wear that piece of shiny goodness with pride, because he made meaningful contributions to its acquisition. Even if history has forgotten him, you can bet his teammates won't.

On the other side of the equation, how about Brian Scalabrine? The guy has a quasi-endearing, quasi-grating reputation as the over-enthusiastic bench guy who really isn't good at basketball by NBA standards. There might not be a more ragged-on current player. But he also got to hold the Larry O'Brien Trophy for a quick second when the Celtics won in 2008. You know how many minutes he played in the 2008 playoffs? 0.00. Goose egg, baby. Nonetheless, he must have done something at some point during the regular season which might maybe kinda-sorta have helped the C's win a game or two, contributing to playoff seeding and home-court ... right? Maybe, but I doubt it. He's still got the ring, though, which is a travesty. I hate that a guy like that gets to wear a ring while Steve Nash goes without. Hate it. Nothing personal against Scal, but it's an injustice that the thing is sitting on his mantle right now.

Especially since he had this to say afterwards:

“Maybe now you could say I didn't play a second, but in five years, you guys are going to forget. In ten years I'll still be a champion. In 20 years I'll tell my kids I probably started, and in 30 years I'll probably tell them I got the MVP. So I'm probably not too worried about it.”

It was theoretically at least a little bit tongue-and-cheek, but how bloody infuriating is that? And the sad part is, he's right. We will forget.

Unfortunately, if we think of Devereaux and Scalabrine at all in 50 years (and we probably won't), they will be remembered equally. Little more than passable at their respective sports' highest levels, yet owners of an honor that all athletes covet and many deserving players never attain.

What I'm saying is, we should make a concerted effort to quantify these things, even for the obscure legions who mostly just ride the pine. If we're going to deconstruct Chuck Wagon differently because he never won a ring, discerning the differences between the small-scale contributors and the pure coat-tail riders is something we owe these guys.

Because Mike Devereaux is a far cry from Brian Scalabrine. May we never forget it.

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