Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Searching For A Desert Island Athlete

I read a lot. Even more than I say the words "a lot,” which is a lot. Other than the necessities (sleeping, breathing, eating), I'm pretty confident that I read more than I do any other activity. I waste hours on it. Days. Months. Years. And on and on and on. I read so much that I've gotten to the point of not reading while I'm reading, where I'll sit there and tell myself than I should be spending that time doing other things (like, for example, writing). But then I keep on reading, and the writing and everything else suffers, consumed by my insatiable desire to know, be entertained, and run away. Over the past 14 days, as just a small sampling, I've read Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin, I'm A Lebowski, You're A Lebowski by Bill Green et al., Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan, and 1602 by Neil Gaiman (a re-read, but it felt like a new read). That of course doesn't count the hundreds of stories, posts and pieces I've had sent to me daily through my RSS Feeds, three or four magazines, issue #9 of The Spirit, and the chapters I've read from Pro Football Prospectus 2007, Summerland, and the Count of Monte Cristo. And actually, now that I look at that list, I'd say that's a slow two weeks of reading for me.

I finished Chronicles some time this evening/morning, after a fitful two hours of sleep. I then picked up Stranded, a collection of rock essays edited by Greil Marcus. The book is considered a seminal work of rock criticism, and I found myself a copy about a month ago. It has been republished by Da Capo Press, in my mind the flagship printing press on all issues relating to and about popular music. The idea of the book is the "if you were gonna be stuck on a desert island, what single album would you take with you?" thought experiment most famously articulated by Nick Hornsby in High Fidelity. I got through the Foreword (written by Robert Christgau), the Preface (by Marcus), the Introduction (also by Marcus), and the Prologue (by Nick Tosches) before halting in my tracks. And no, it wasn't because I was exasperated by the fact that the book had a Foreword, Preface, Introduction and Prologue, though now that I think about it that would have been a perfectly acceptable reason. No, the reason I stopped is because the book gave me an idea—like many of the thousands of books I've read before it—and this time I decided to actually follow through with it rather than the reading. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that passive activities like reading are much easier to return to than active activities (?) like writing. Having learned that fact usually doesn’t stop me from ignoring it, but this time it did.

WriteRoom tells me that I just wrote a 478-word waste of an introduction, and I know the green screen is correct. All I really wanted to say was that I've been reading a book about essentials that bring people great joy, and it made me think about athletes. As I started an essay on the Stones' Beggars Banquet I wondered, "who would be my desert island athlete?" I quickly came to the conclusion that this is both a lamely imitative and highly imaginative question. On the one hand, how many thousands of times have dumb lists like these been made? Booooring. On the other, what kind of creative leap does it take to imagine a professional athlete stranded with a total stranger on a desert island? It's a desert island after all. Where's Bobby Orr going to play?

This land being my land, I decided to push ahead with the thought experiment (I'm also hoping I'm not ripping anyone off here other than Marcus and colleagues). In fact, the entire time I've been writing this, my noggin has been dancing with possibilities. I actually don't have an answer to my question, at least not yet. Several options have popped into my head, but nothing firm and convincing has yet solidified. So we might as well explore some parameters.

1) The athlete is not there for companionship of any sort, platonic or sordid. Jennie Finch is therefore immediately deleted from my mind list, despite her beauty and furious windmill. I’d just get angry that I couldn’t court her. The athlete does not cook, clean, walk around naked, play the guitar, build a stethoscope out of bamboo, nothing. They are there to play sports, and that is all.

2) They are not actually the only athletes on the island. There are others, as your athlete of choice obviously needs to play with and against opponents. But these "others" are just that, nameless and faceless automatons operating at various levels of excelled performance. Basically, they are robots programmed to perform at a professional level of performance in whatever sport it is that your desert island athlete is playing, and that is all. Rule 1 also applies to the robots, perverts.

2.1) An alternate option is one where the athlete isn't actually there. Instead, you get to take a mysteriously powered video player that shows every single game that athlete ever played. The benefit of this is that there is no need for the robot opponents. The downside is that you become limited to seeing just those games, not the athlete playing new games in new situations.

3) I'm still thinking this one through, but I believe the athlete chosen should only qualify in one sport. Ergo, you don't get to watch Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders play football and baseball, and you don't get to see Jackie Robinson play baseball, football, basketball and track and field. I'm open to hearing counter-arguments on this one, but I'll start with that limitation.

4) The athlete tires within the game itself, but once the game it plays is over, it is instantly refreshed and ready to go again. Elf will never need food badly.

5) Most importantly, you shouldn’t choose an athlete because they are thought to be the greatest athlete of all-time or any such thing. Rather, you choose them because they are the athlete you would enjoy watching the most. Enjoyment and wonder on the desert island is paramount.

Other than that, the sky is the limit. You want a hockey rink on that island? Done. Basketball court? Done. Tennis court? Grass, clay, and hard. Speedway? No, because racecar drivers aren't athletes, any more than the best Halo players are athletes (I'll let chess players slide, though). They can be athletes who are alive, or athletes who are dead. Male or female (but human). Black, white, brown, yellow or red. Basically, you get your own Field of Dreams to help you survive on that desert island, and you get to watch your very own version of Shoeless Joe perform for the ages. So who will it be?

I still don't know. I still don't even know if I want to go with Rule 2 or 2.1. But a list is forming:

Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Mark Messier, Bo Jackson, Pele, Mario Lemieux, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Jackie Robinson, Gale Sayers, Pedro Martinez, Willie Mays, David Ortiz, Ty Cobb, John Olerud, Muhammad Ali

I'm assuredly missing others, but those are the names that I thought of right away (I wonder if there is any meaning other than just my love of the sport that so many baseball players made the list?). I think Joe Posnanski would take Bo Jackson. My friend Avi might take Barry Bonds. I wonder if Cosh would take Pavel Bure or Tim Raines. In ten years’ time, Sidney Crosby might make my list. So too Lebron James, Albert Pujols, Alexander Ovechkin, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Ladainian Tomlinson, Vince Young, and Reggie Bush. But not now, not today.

Taking the list I have, let's minimize it to five: Gretzky, Jordan, Williams, Robinson and Ortiz. I want to keep Jackson (the shoeless one), Orr, Paige and Mays around, but I think it's more out of nostalgia or a myth created in my mind than a belief that I would enjoy them more than the others. I never saw any of them play, which is probably part of the appeal, but ultimately the reason they don't make the final cut. I never saw Williams or Robinson play either, but I'm ignoring that fact. Robinson is my favorite athlete of all-time, maybe even my favorite human being of all-time, so he makes the top five. The Splendid Splinter deserves to be on the list just for the chills his nickname sends down my spine, never mind that if he was my choice I'd get to watch him in batting practice all day, every day, until the day I died.

All day, every day, until the day you died. Just imagine it. It's inconceivable. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Your heroes. GODS. All day, every day, until the day you died.

My final three are Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson and David Ortiz. I admit it: I'm spoiled by Gretzky. Plus, there is something impersonal about all the equipment that makes me think it's not a wise choice for a desert island pick. I'm waffling on this already, as my mind just told me I was being an idiot and that I could watch him play any way I wanted, so I better move on quickly here. Bye, Great One.

Ortiz is out next. I love Big Papi. I don't know if I've ever paid as much attention to a baseball player's at-bats as I have Ortiz's. He is my favorite professional athlete playing right now. It's obvious that he loves the game, and loves life. He is a beautiful hitter. And I'd get to sing, "I love it when you call me Big Papi" over and over again in my desert abode, watching him smack dingers over the Monster or center field in Yankee Stadium (hmm, the ability to alternate stadiums is a bonus feature I'd never thought of until now. I like that). But I don't think he gets to outlast Jordan or Robinson. Yeah, it's my choice, and I can pick whomever I want, and it's supposed to be about whom you would enjoy watching the most, but I just can't let Ortiz move on. My gut won't allow it.

Michael Jordan or Jackie Robinson? That is the question. A tough question. An impossible question. I never got to see Robinson play, but like I said before, I worship the man. By all accounts, he could do anything he wanted, on any given day. Field, hit, steal bases. All of it. If I chose him, I could let him play against all-white robots every single day, and watch him whup their asses. That would be great. He could steal home, spike the catcher in the chest, and then water them down with a hose before heading out to play defence. As for Jordan, oh God. I could put him in dunk contests, all-star games, games of HORSE, and anything else he could gamble on. No baseball games, thankfully, because of Rule 3. But he'd be a monster, a constant source of joy and bewilderment. Oh man, what to do?

I think I have to go with Michael Jordan, and here's why: I'd get more, holy shit, how the fuck did he do thats out of him than anybody else. In fact, if I went by that criterion alone (and maybe I should have) Gretzky might pop up to number two. But Jordan is the man. He shoots, dunks, rebounds, steals, covers and hustles his ass off. He is the best athlete I've ever seen, perhaps the best performer I've ever witnessed. And it's all thoroughly enjoyable. No one was bored watching Jordan play, ever. In fact, the exact opposite was true. Even in his fading years he had his moments, and you always sat on the edge of your seat waiting for him to do something spectacular. Plus, he is programmed to learn a new move every summer, so there'd always be new material. I can't deny that. I just can't. So when that day comes, when my little boat gets cast against a reef and I end up stranded on a sandy shore, His Airness will be there with me. He'll be in a red Bulls jersey with the number twenty-three across the front, tongue out, wearing one of the Air Jordan hats Mars Blackman used to kick in the commercials. He'll look at me, smile that smile, lift up his shoulder and arms in a "you've got me" pose, and then take off for the foul line, eventually launching his body into the air, framed by a yellow sun, green palm trees, and blue waters. I might make him stay like that forever. After all, it's my island.

***Update*** In the comments, Avi came up with a great idea that I now label Schadenfreude Island: the ability to bring one athlete onto the island so that you can take delight in watching your team of sophisticated robots annihilate him or her forever. Immediate candidates include Cristiano Ronaldo, the entire Italian soccer team, Patrick Roy, Rodney Harrison, Teddy Bruschi, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Chris Chelios. The individual who would appear on both my lists? Ty Cobb.


But then he'd make us watch Space Jam all of the time.

Speaking of good books, and on a related note, I gotta recommend "The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" a grisly account of a whaling ship that was sunk by a sperm whale (also the inspiration for Moby Dick) in the South Pacific. Everything that can go wrong went wrong, and the crew floated around without water in a lifeboat for days, with only a sea turtle to munch on, and eventually kind of went nuts. When they did find an island, it had limited resources and almost no water, forcing most of them to return to the sea. Eventually they ate each other, and even went as far as drawing straws to see who would be next. The captain was later found sucking on a leg bone.


So yeah, if I found myself with any athlete I'd probably creating secret caches of food and stealing their rations from Day 1.

If found by a rescue team, it'd probably be found next to a skeleton with a Bulls jersey, babbling to a volleyball...

I would have called this entry "Choose your mancrush!"

Seriouslty though, interesting question. I'm on the fence between Gretzky, Favre and well, Joe Carter, because I can still recall being a 13 year old boy and hearing "Touch 'em all, Joe!" ringing in my ears.

I think all my candidates were covered here -- and that Bjorn Borg might edge out Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez.

If I could have a whole team on the desert island, I'd pick the 76-77 Canadiens. And if I could set the robot-opponent's performance level high enough that they'd always win, humuliating my desert island athlete, then it's Diego Maradona all the way.

You'd want to spend the rest of your life watching Bjorn Borg? Remember, it's not necessarily your favorite, and it's not who you think is the greatest. It's you who you'd find the most enjoyable.

If I could have a whole team on the desert island


First of all, rule number 1 sucks... ; )

But if that is the case, I'd take Theoren Fleury...

I certainly would never be bored...

Wait, would there be alcohol on this island?

I know it is your island and everything, but I'm not a big fan of this robot opponent idea.

I mean, I could watch Larry Legend all day long, but it just wouldn't be nearly as much fun watching Larry beat up on a bunch of scrubs (talented though they may be) as it would be to watch him beat up on Magic or Xavier McDaniel. Athletes don't make their name by beating up on nobodies -- they make their name by beating up on somebodies.

On my desert island I'm also going to expand the definition of "play sports" to include post-game interviews, pre-game interviews, hell, all kinds of interviews. I don't wanna just watch Larry beat up on the X-Man, I want to hear him tell me about how he is going to do it, watch him go out and do it, and then hear the X-Man express his wonderment afterward.

Good times, good times.

I mean, I could watch Larry Legend all day long, but it just wouldn't be nearly as much fun watching Larry beat up on a bunch of scrubs (talented though they may be) as it would be to watch him beat up on Magic or Xavier McDaniel.

Well you have two options:

1) Go with Rule 2.1, which allows you to watch footage.

2) Read 2.0 over again, and note that these robots would not be scrubs. They are programmed at various levels of excelled performance, and the fact that they are programmable means that those levels can be altered. My Robinson story also indicates that I would allow for changes in physical appearance, so I don't think there'd be anything wrong in having every opponent Bird faced look like the X-Man, Magic or Bill Laimbeer.

As for the interviews, I'm gonna come down with a firm "no." You are on a desert island, after all. You can't have everything. That defeats the purpose. In fact, all you get is the athletic performances. Trust me, it'll just make them that much sweeter.

This would have made Castaway more interesting.

You lost me at hello.

Great post. I think Gretzky would have to win it for me, but only if he could play against 1980's goaltenders all the time.

A very close second, and given more thought I might even put him at the top, would be Tiger Woods. He does so many things on the golf course that no other player in the world can do. He would definitely have that 'wow' factor, and if I could make him play on different golf courses from all over the world, that would be incredibly cool. Or, I could make up fictional golf courses and make him play those, like the crazy hard ones from his video game. Now that would be something.

Hmmmm, tough call.

Peter Forsberg. Seriously. I love watching players who enjoy pissing people off and doing weird things as much as Forsberg does. I remember him carrying the puck through the neutral zone, protecting it with his body, and steam-rolling Wes Walz. I enjoy things like that even more than watching Hemsky stick-handle. That said, I never got to watch Gretzky, so...
And a really wingnut choice, Jarkko Ruutu. I love his little grin when he does borderline cheap things. But only if I could program my robots to play at an AHL skill-level.
Finally, a really good book is The Bounty by Caroline Alexander, which shines some light onto an extremely misunderstood story.

Sid Finch.

2) Read 2.0 over again, and note that these robots would not be scrubs. They are programmed at various levels of excelled performance, and the fact that they are programmable means that those levels can be altered. My Robinson story also indicates that I would allow for changes in physical appearance, so I don't think there'd be anything wrong in having every opponent Bird faced look like the X-Man, Magic or Bill Laimbeer.

I'm confused. Your rule #1 says explicity "nameless and faceless". Now you are telling me that I can program my robots to look and behave like any opponent that I wanted? Is that any different than just allowing me to have the originals?

Sorry to nitpick on this, but if I'm going to voluntarily commit myself to living on coconut water and tubers, I want to make sure that I'm not stuck watching Larry Bird beat up on nobodies -- no matter how talented I can program them to be.

I’d take George Herman Ruth, that is if you’ll let him hit AND pitch. If not, Satchel Paige…or maybe Rocket Richard…or how about Guy Lafleur…no, Jackie Parker…
Hey this game IS fun!

I'd take Karen Percy.

Heya guys, there is an NHL tournament of Logos and today is the last day to vote. Edmonton is behind the Blues by a lot of votes so lets try give them one last push. Here is the link http://nhllogos.blogspot.com/2007/09/poll-oilers-vs-blues.html and vote for the Oil for an all canadien final match up..Oilers vs the Habs.

Edmonton is behind the Blues by a lot of votes so lets try give them one last push.

Seriously? I thought the Canadian teams would automatically win. There must not be much to do in St. Louis right now.

I'd read a LOT more if I didn't have to work...or eat...or sleep. But I have to recommend "The Radioactive Boy Scout" by Ken Silverstein, and "E=mc2" by David Bodanis. Bodanis does a great job of explaining exactly what goes into the equation and how much it has influenced the history of science.

Next up: "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz, about the author and several others who escaped from a Soviet labor camp and travelled overland to British India. I think I'll have to pick up "The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" too, since that sounds very good.

I'm confused. Your rule #1 says explicity "nameless and faceless". Now you are telling me that I can program my robots to look and behave like any opponent that I wanted? Is that any different than just allowing me to have the originals?

It's a weird world, that island. Strange stuff happens there, like on Lost. It's a fair concern of yours, though. I just wanted to emphasize that they were robots, really, and that they were second-fiddle to the real star, your athlete. But no, Sacamano has to have everything on his island,and have his X-Man with Bird. So I'm taking it all back. No X-Man for you. You get 11 other robots who look like extras from Hoosiers.

Joe Montana. He engineered all those amazing comebacks so you know you'd never be bored. He's a winner, so you know you'll survive. He's small, so you know he won't hog all the food. And he's not a dickhead, so you won't have to kill him on Day 2 because you're sick of him, like, say, about 95% of the pro athletes you could name.

Hmmm, now extras from Hoosiers would be cool. They rarely miss a shot and would be a great test for the Birdman.

Orr for me, with a hat tip to Tim Raines. Vladdy may pass them both.

I'd have to take Rodney So'oialo. That man pulls at least 6 or 8 "how the hell did he do that" plays per game.

And the man crush doesn't hurt, either. (H O T)

If I need to go with someone most of you have heard of, I'd go with Ryan Smyth. I've always just loved to watch him play, even though it was rarely pretty.

What kind of mad sports scientist comes up with a desert island that allows John Olerud(!) but not Jennie Finch? Harsh.

Have you ever seen Olerud's swing? It's a thing of beauty.

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