Sports Illustrated has a photo essay--which is always just a way for them to put up some pictures that they deem in some way vaguely related and call it a "story"--about the most difficult things to do in sports. The first photo is of Ted Williams, evoking his famous claim that hitting a round ball with a round bat was the hardest thing to do in all of sports. But that quote by Williams raises the question why even the Cleveland Indians, the worst hitting team in the American League to this point, have managed to hit round balls with round bats 550 times already this season. And that's just counting the times they've hit balls that actually fell in for hits, not all the fouls and routine grounders and flyouts.
Hitting a baseball may be difficult, but so is building a house. Like construction, hitting is a craft that can be learned and must be constantly honed even by those who are naturally good at it. On the flip side, there will also be people who will not excel at it no matter how hard they study and practice (the lamp I made in 7th grade shop was an embarrassment).
It might be more correct to say "Using a round bat to hit a round ball that can be delivered in a variety of manners and speeds is the most difficult fundamental one must learn to participate in any of the major sports. Certainly it is harder than dribbling a basketball or throwing a spiral or skating on ice."
Unfortunately, Sports Illustrated tries not to make sense of Williams's claim, but instead to muddy the water even further by presenting a random list of things they could find pictures of in what had to have been four, perhaps five minutes of searching.
1. Hitting .400 for the season
Ted Williams was the last hitter to finish the season with a batting average over .400 in 1941. Despite the offensive explosion of the last decade, no one has topped .380 since Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994. For that matter Gwynn, Williams, Rod Carew, and George Brett are the only men since 1941 to top .380. The combination of skill, consistency, and luck needed to go out and get four hits in every ten at bats from April through October is worthy of inclusion on this list.
2. Winning consecutive Super Bowls in the salary cap era
Really? Because it's only happened twice in the fourteen years since the NFL instituted a salary cap? That means in ten out of those fourteen years, teams won a Super Bowl but failed to win another the following year (and that includes the Giants this year even though they haven't yet had the chance to repeat). Which means 29% of Super Bowl winners in the salary cap era repeat as champs. Granted, it's short of the 42% repeat rate of the previous 29 Super Bowls, but given that the salary cap was supposed to create a more level playing field, that's to be expected. Still, the fact that you won a Super Bowl in the first place has to give you favorable odds of winning another one. Just look at the Patriots, who could have made it three teams in 14 years if they'd beaten New York. That, by the way, would have been a 43% repeat rate.
More Difficult: Rolling a seven with two dice - 20% chance
3. Setting a world record in the pole vault
By virtue of the phrase "world record," this pretty much goes without saying. After all, to set a world record you have to perform better than anyone else ever has in history to this point. I'm guessing that what Sports Illustrated is getting at is that the pole vaulting world records of Sergei Bubka (6.14 meters) has stood since 1994--though that's a stretch considering they've illustrated this with a photo of women's record holder Yelena Isinbayeva setting the 5.01 meter mark in 2005. Many other records predate Bubka's though, including Mike Powell's long jump, Kevin Young's 400m high hurdles, and Yuriy Sedykh's hammer throw.
More Difficult: Setting a world record in women's shot put. Natalya Lisovskaya has held the record since 1987 when she shot a put 22.63 meters. Since the end of the Cold War (and the advent of steroid testing), the closest anyone has come has been Viktoriya Pavlysh at 21.69, almost a full meter short of the record.
Even More Difficult: Setting a world record for being the world's tallest man.
4. Finishing with a quadruple double in an NBA game
Only four players in NBA history have recorded quadruple doubles, the accumulation of double-digit totals in four statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, and either blocks or steals. "Recorded" is the key word there because prior to the 1973-74 season, statisticians didn't keep records of blocks or steals. Wilt Chamberlain has two "unofficial" unofficial quadruple doubles and both he and Bill Russell are widely speculated to have more. Seven other players--including Clyde Drexler twice!--have come within one stat of a quadruple double. In other words, if Drexler had grabbed one more rebound on January 10, 1986 or passed to one more teammate who scored a basket on November 1, 1996, you'd have five players on that list.
More Difficult: The obvious choice here would be scoring 100 points in an NBA game--it's only been done once, but we can set the bar even lower. Two years ago, Kobe Bryant put up 81 points. He and Chamberlain are the only two players ever to score more than 80 points and they, along with David Robinson, David Thompson, and Elgin Baylor, are the only five to score more than 70 in a game. So, instead of 100, let's make it 74. Only three times has anyone scored more than 74 points in an NBA game.
5. Winning the Grand Slam in golf
Yes, very difficult. No argument here. The fact that we've settled for acknowledging the "Career Grand Slam" because no one can win the traditional Grand Slam speaks volumes about how hard it is.
6. Throwing touchdown passes in 40-plus consecutive games
Okay, I'll grant you this is tough, but isn't this kind of cherry picking? This is an example of finding a record and making that the mark. Quarterbacks don't go out with the goal of making sure they throw touchdowns in 40 consecutive games. If Tom Brady fails to throw a touchdown in a game, he doesn't lament that he'll have to start his quest toward 40-plus anew the next week. And if you're going to use a random "no one has matched this streak" kind of stat, how can you not go with "Getting a hit in 50-plus consecutive baseball games"?
7. Pitching back to back no-hitters
Again, hard to argue, but again again, not really a goal a pitcher sets out to achieve. There have been 256 no-hitters in baseball's modern era. The fact that two of them were thrown by Johnny VanderMeer in consecutive starts is a statistical anomaly of astronomical proportions.
8. Scoring 80 or more goals in a season
Once again, SI has chosen a level of achievement and arbitrarily decreed it "one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports" by virtue of the fact not many people have done it. Only three hockey players have scored more than 80 goals in a season, including Wayne Gretzky twice. Obviously it's tough, but what makes it harder than hitting more than 62 doubles in a baseball season or rushing for more than 2000 yards in a football season or recording more than 270 steals in an NBA season.
More Difficult: Scoring 850 or more points in a WNBA season; naming the one player who has scored more than 850 points in a WNBA season.
9. Shutting down Kobe Bryant
How random. No definition for "shutting down" is given. All SI tells us is "It's one of the toughest assignments in sports." Really? Harder than pass rushing Tom Brady? Harder than pitching to Alex Rodriguez? Harder than scoring a goal on Chris Osgood? Does "shutting down" mean holding him scoreless? Does it mean keeping him under 12 points in a game? Without any kind of quantitative measure, just the apocryphal "one on the toughest assignments in all of sports," it's hard to believe this one wasn't thrown in because the editor was screaming about deadline and the writer had a good Kobe Bryant photo he wanted to use for something.
More Difficult: Making sense of the ninth most difficult thing listed in this photo essay.
10. Starting 253 consecutive regular-season [NFL] games
This is a reference to Brett Favre's streak, though even in the description its acknowledged that Jeff Feagles holds the all-time NFL record for most consecutive games. Defensive lineman Jim Marshall started 282 consecutive games for Minnesota in the 60's and 70's. Why is 253 more difficult than--if we're just going to pull out random non-round numbers--2632 consecutive baseball games?
More Difficult: Justifying making two Brett Favre references in a photo essay by siting two records Farve doesn't actually own (see #6).
11. Winning a world bull riding championship
What?!?!? I'm assuming there is a world bull riding championship won by someone every year. You might as well say winning the Super Bowl or the World Series is the most difficult thing in sports. Since this is an individual sport, it might be more appropriate to say winning a bull riding world championship shouldn't be any more difficult than winning golf's money title or NASCAR's Nextel Cup. In fact, given that there are 45 riders currently competing in the PBR, it's less difficult to win there than on the PGA or in tennis.
More Difficult: Finding success in a sport that anyone cares about.
12. Hitting the quad in women's figure skating
Can't argue. According to SI, Miki Ando is the only woman ever to do it and I'm guessing it's something a lot of girls try at some point. However, let's keep in mind that if this list was made in 1948 "hitting a double axel in men's figure skating" would be on this list... as would "running a mile in under four minutes." Technology and new training methods are making things like this more and more achievable.
More difficult: Finding a less flattering photo of Miki Ando than the one Sports Illustrated used for this article; hitting a quintuple axel in cow figure skating.
13. Winning the Triple Crown as a jockey
No one has won horse racing's Triple Crown in more than 30 years, so it must be tough. I just find it odd that SI felt the need to specify "as a jockey." As opposed to "as a banker" I suppose, which may be more difficult, but not in the realm of sports. It could be to differentiate horses from jockeys, since Eddie Acaro won the Triple Crown in 1941 and 1948, meaning there have been 11 horses who've won the Triple Crown and but only ten jockeys. Why not--like so many other ridiculous items on this list--make it "Winning two Triple Crowns." I'm guessing because they didn't have a photo of Eddie Acaro in the archives but did have an old cover with Steve Cauthen.
More difficult: Winning the Triple Crown as a really fat jockey.
14. Sled Dog Racing
To quote myself from "Winning a world bull riding championship," "What?!?!?" No particular sled dog racing achievements you want to acknowledge? Not "Winning Sled Dog racing's Yukon Quest and Iditarod in consecutive years" which is what you've written about in the caption accompanying the photos? No. Just sled dog racing. There are only thirteen other things in all of sports that can even compare in difficulty to the act of lashing some dogs to a sled and trying to make them run faster than some other dogs pulling another sled. It is easier to hit 60 home runs, win a Super Bowl, set a new world record in the triple jump, average a triple double over a complete NBA season, win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, or dress up in drag and convince the WNBA that you are a woman.
More Difficult: Beating Brett Favre and Kobe Bryant for consecutive sled dog racing Triple Crowns.
Ah, Sports Illustrated, it's hard hitting journalism like this and Peter King's "I Think I Think I Think This" and Dr. Z's snore-inducing commentaries about the Redhead that have earned ESPN and its borderline-retarded coverage the title of "Worldwide Leader in Sports."
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