I've always fallen hard for a certain sort of athlete—I like it when a guy simple believes he's much better, broadcasts it, be that explicitly or implicitly, and uses the contest as his ultimate opportunity to make that point repeatedly and emphatically, even after the outcome seems assured. I like my athlete's great and arrogant about their greatness—it makes their successes and failures more interesting to me.
Clearly, I'm not alone in this—the appeal of Ali and Frazier has been rehashed quite a bit in the wake of Frazier's passing, and an oft repeated exchange stands out for me. I've read at least three different versions of this, but the gist is that during the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, Ali was supposedly shouting at Frazier, over and over:
"Don't you know I'm God?"
At least one version has Ali punctuating each swing of his fists with it, as if by repeating it, in combination with his incredible talent, he would make it true. Frazier, for his part, was unimpressed. There are conflicting versions of how the then champion responded (and hell, let's admit this all is at best 50-50 for ever happening), but in my favorite Frazier responds almost apologetically:
"Lord, you in the wrong place tonight."
Devastating. Ali and Frazier was the collision of two athletes who carry the mentality I mentioned earlier—Ali and Frazier were each so sure of their ability, so assured of victory, that the former was willing to assert that he was God—all powerful, the creator—and the other was willing to accept that but counter that he could, in fact, knock God down often enough to win the fight. And, of course, he did.
Baseball hasn't recently lent itself to the kind of grandstanding that makes me gleeful—Albert Belle hanging out of the dugout pointing at his bicep is one of my favorite sports moments of all time, and it's also a moment that clearly would seem out of place in this era, where an excess of power is the equivalent of a scarlet "WINSTROL" across your chest, where an explosive personality is an easy way to raise flags. Albert Pujols, clearly one of the very best players of the last decade, is nicknamed 'The Machine', and there's a lot about baseball's last decade in that. A Machine is efficient, excellent, and maybe, if we're felling personify-ing, ruthless; a machine is not arrogant, communicative, or interested in asserting its excellence after the job has already been completed. I am totally uninterested in the athlete as machine. To see the expressive and cocksure Brewers lose to Tony LaRussa's Golden Machine and The Aww Shucks Squad was a disappointment.
In light of all this, it's not hard to discern that I often find the Indians disappointing. I'm inclined to imagine (and impose) the alchemy of greatness and ego that I want on the team. I see Chris Perez as an untouchable fire-eater when, actually, he might be a player worth flipping for an interesting guy at AA; I remember Fausto as the 2007 ALDS world beater when, actually, his nerves appear made of rock candy, not steel. At least this season brought Asdrubal and his occasional bat flip, and, of course, Carlos, who exudes exactly my sort of catnip.
Smack in the middle of this, of course, is the player I wrote about on Halloween, Grady Sizemore. Grady was considered a generational talent from nearly the beginning, and he's one of only a few Indians of my lifetime who really approached the talent level that really sucks me (and most fans) into a persona. At his peak, Grady would occasionally give me what I was after, in the form of a disingenuous "Who, me?" smirk after smacking a baseball 420 feet or legging out a triple. Now, though, the potential that such a posture would be routine for him is long gone.
The Indians appear to be moving in the right direction, though, and some new swagger may soon be earned. Masterson is a gigantic talent and, with a well placed scream or two, he can worm his way deeper into my heart. Kipnis, Carlos, and Cabrera have a chance to throw blankets of fear over opponents, and Santana most clearly among them seems capable of physically embodying that threat with his walk, glare, and wildman's swing. Add to this the intriguing possibility that Yoenis Cespedes could be the Indians next center fielder, and you can start to see a team that's a lot of fun. Clearly, sustained greatness is probably not in the cards for the 2012 Cleveland Indians, but it's my hope that we can at least see moments of true greatness, and when those moments come I hope they're punctuated by sideways grins, helmet tosses, and derisive barks—whatever it takes to let opponents know that these moments are not isolated incidents but, instead, the advanced scouts for a forthcoming army of pain.