Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Top Five Favorite All-Time "Out of Nowhere" Athletes

In case you haven't been paying attention, New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has been taking the sporting world by storm these past two weeks.  It's not just that he has been a great player for the NBA team in America's biggest media market, it's also that like Victor Cruz of the football Giants, he's a great "out of nowhere" athlete.  As the enduring popularity of films like The Natural attests, American sports fans love it when a player who has been little regarded or obscure suddenly comes from out of nowhere to dominate in the big time.  It speaks to the fantasies of fans themselves, and the idea that a schlub like them could play with the big boys.

Of course, Lin is hardly the first athlete to go from being cut and scrambling to find a job to sudden greatness.  Here's a top five list of my favorite of such stories.  Notice that I said "favorite," not "best" or "most compelling."  My judgements are entirely subjective.

5.  Mark "the Bird" Fidrych
I was barely alive for The Bird's magic 1976 season, but it's something that captured my attention at a young age seeing clips of him on a baseball show (probably This Week in Baseball.)  He was 21 year old rookie from small town New England who talked to the ball, insisted on shaking the hands of all his opponents after his starts, and managed to win nineteen games with a league-leading 2.34 ERA.  He did all of this while radiating a kind of child-like joy to be playing in the major leagues.  Sadly an arm injury shortened his career in an era when surgery for pitchers was much less developed.  This turned him from a potential all-time great player into one of the game's more colorful and memorable footnotes, and a reminder of the cruelties of the baseball gods.

4.  Timmy Smith
Another rookie, Smith barely carried the ball during the 1987 season for the Redskins, running for only 126 yards.  However, when Washington played the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Smith ran for a record 204 yards, much more than he had racked up through the entire season!  He's pretty much forgotten today, but his out of nowhere accomplishment ought to be remembered.

3.  Kurt Warner
I've got a soft spot for Warner, since he's a fellow Midwesterner.  As the story goes, he was bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee in Iowa when he got the call up to the St. Louis Rams.  Warner had played college ball for Northern Iowa (hardly a big-time program) and hadn't even started there until his senior year.  After failing to make it with an NFL team, he played in the Arena League, then Europe.  Finally getting his chance to play on the big stage in 1999, he turned in one of the greatest single season performances by a quarterback in NFL history, and won the Super Bowl in the bargain.  People forget it now, but that year's Rams offense was something truly remarkable to behold, a quick-striking juggernaut that made fools out of the best defenses in the league, and helmed by a guy who had nearly as much experience saying "paper or plastic" as calling audibles.  He went on to be one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game.

2.  Geoff Blum
As a White Sox fan, Blum is especially near and dear to my heart.  He came so far out of nowhere that I was an even more rabid Sox back fan in 2005 and still had little clue who he was.  That's what you expect from a guy nicknamed "Random Man."  Blum is a classic good field-no hit utility infielder whose versatility, rather than his bat, has kept in the major leagues, bouncing around between six different teams.  A career .250 hitter, Blum got the right hit at the right time in the 2005 World Series, lifting the White Sox over the Astros with an epic homer in the 14th inning of game three.  It was his only at bat of the entire series, but boy did he make it count.

1.  Buster Douglas

Growing up in the sports world of the 1980s, I thought of Mike Tyson not as a mere mortal human being, but a kind of fearsome demigod.  He might be a figure of mirth or disgust today, but back then nobody dared laugh or sneer at Iron Mike.  Tyson brought a scary intensity and absolutely devastating punches to ring, and his fists dispatched many worthy challengers, from Larry Holmes to Michael Spinks, in embarrassingly short order.  Then, in early 1990, Tyson fought the little regarded Buster Douglas in Japan in a bout that most Vegas odds makers didn't bother taking bets on.  Shocking the world, the virtually unknown Douglas knocked the champ out.  If you look at the film clip, you can see the absolute punishment he dished out on the heretofore undefeated Tyson, who looks completely lost after hitting the canvas, looking for his mouthguard with a dazed expression.  Douglas promptly got fat, got beat bad by Evander Holyfield, and then retired.  Where do you go after you defeat a man who was supposed to be invincible?  Much like Alexander the Great after his conquests, Douglas simply didn't have anything else to fight for that could top what he had just done, and that was his undoing.

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