The only thing I like about pro baseball right now is the Nashville Sounds. They’ve got a lot of interesting new players, and they’re off to a great startincluding a perfect game by pitcher John Wasdin. If there’s anything that restores some semblance of my faith in baseball, it’s the minor leagues. I won’t win any friends with this one, but if the Sounds never get a new stadium in Nashville, I won’t care. I lived in Chicago for 20 years, and I have visited that holiest of shrines, Wrigley Field, dozens of times, so I know what Baseball Paradise looks like.
And I still like going to humble Greer Stadium. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a Field of Dreams. Plus, one of my childhood heroes was Darold Knowles, who used to be a pretty good left-handed reliever for my beloved, lousy and long-defunct Washington Senators. Now I look over to the Sounds dugout and there he isbig as life, serving as their pitching coach. Knowles looks exactly the same as he did in 1970, when he was 2-14 for yet another woeful Senators team, yet somehow saved 27 games and had an ERA of 2.04. (Just think: His manager that year was Ted Williams.)
Knowles puts me in the mind of players past, and players past their prime. The Majors are abuzz this year with talk of Greg Maddux’s decline, the Big Unit’s decline and Rickey Henderson’s, what?Gordy Howe impersonation.
But the real story happened on the basketball court. Michael Jordan just retiredagainas the NBA regular season drew to a close, and his third retirement also puts me in a Chicago frame of mind, because I lived there through all six of the Bulls’ championships, when Michael was at the very top of his game. Because I experienced that firsthand, I got to thinking about greatness in sports.
Times change. So did Jordan, though as superstars went, he still played a high level of ball. At least it wasn’t like Willie Mays, who showed in 1973 why most 42-year-old guys shouldn’t continue to play baseball (or any other pro sport) after they’ve been a superstar. Mays managed to blight possibly the greatest baseball career ever by hitting .211, with 6 HRs and 25 RBIs, in his final season with the New York Mets. He also had an embarrassingly decrepit moment on national television during the playoffs that year, while millions of viewers winced at the very public and obvious deterioration of his skills. (Are you listening, Rickey?)
That never happened to Michael, thankfully. He had a very good year, and he made a gallant attempt to help the Wizards make the playoffs (which they didn’t).
Yet the proposition still holds: When an athlete is an incredible talent, far superior to his peers, and achieves at a godlike level, does anyone really want to see them play at even a smidgen below their greatness? Watching Jordan soar high through the Lakers’ defense during the 1991 NBA Finals, shifting the ball from his right hand to his left to complete a basket that minted the expression circus-shot, is an image for the time capsule. That’s the only Jordan I want to remembernot the workmanlike 40-year-old relying on the last vestiges of his superpowers. (The jump shot remained intact, but mortality’s Kryptonite had weakened him in other areas of his game.) It seemed almost foreign, bittersweet, to be conscious that he was working so hard at something that used to be so effortless. And, when you think about it, Jordan ended his career where he began: a great player surrounded by a team of so-so’s. Me, I prefer to remember the Wizards as the Bullets and Jordan as a Bull.
Which brings us to football and the NFL Draft, which is upon us this weekend, and once again raises the question of aging talent and young blood. I’ve seen the Titans get disappointed mightily the last few years, but they play a rugged and intense brand of football that is often nothing less than inspiring. Steve McNair is a warrior extraordinaire, and it would sure be great to see him get a Super Bowl ring.
But getting over the hump requires constant tweaking of the roster. The Titans have one pick in each of the seven rounds of the draft. Their first selection comes at #28 in Round 1 and their picks conclude with player #243 in Round 7. For a team that made it to the conference championship game last season, it would appear that the Titans have a surprising number of needs. They still look solidespecially if McNair and the coaches come through as they did last yearbut there are holes to fill and the future to consider.
Despite some defections on the defensive line through free agency, that groupled by Kevin Carter, a hopefully now healthy Jevon Kearse and the young and improving Albert Haynesworth and Carlos Hallis in good shape. Drafting help at linebacker and in the defensive backfield is probably in the defense-minded Fisher’s plans. Indeed, on draft day, the Titans often default to defensive needs.
But it’s the offense that concerns me. The offensive line could use some new, younger wide-bodies. And while the receiving corps performed admirably last year, it remains to be seen if the current group can’t be challenged and improved. One of the many online mock drafts has the Titans grabbing Tennessee wide receiver Kelley Washington should he come available at the #28 spot. Now that Neil O’Donnell has moved on and the virtually untested Billy Volek is the new backup to McNair, I could even see the Titans selecting a quarterback somewhere in this draft (though certainly not in the first round).
But what I’m really thinking here is that the Titans need to draft a quality running back. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve long admired Eddie George. In seven NFL seasons, George has racked up 8,978 yards on the ground, another 1,981 in receptions and has scored 69 touchdowns. His heart, desire and reliability have been as inspirational as McNair’s. To many people, George is the Titans.
But the cold, hard truth is that George’s average yards per carry has consistently fallen off in the past three years. There’s a lot of wear and tear on that body after 2,421 hand-offs, and he’s reaching that point in a running back’s career where anything can happen. Backup Robert Holcombe showed flashes of excellence last year, and possibly he provides a clue to the future. On the other hand, he’s entering his sixth NFL season, and impact running backs usually emerge no later than their second or third.
This year’s draft is not flush with high-profile runners. The best one should have been Miami’s Willis McGahee (who tore up his knee in the Fiesta Bowl and is now damaged goods). The other big-name back is Penn State’s Larry Johnson. He’s healthy and has amazing stats. There are a few others who will definitely fall within the Titans’ draft grasp, including Colorado’s Chris Brown, Kentucky’s Artose Pinner and, from Georgiaa school renowned for producing major “sleeper” running backsMusa Smith.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let’s not wait to see George’s skills deteriorate suddenly or a crushing tackle end his career without having a capable thoroughbred runner ready to pick up where he has left off after so many great seasons. Heck, if Eddie still has high-quality years left, then there’s no reason not to draft him some help anyway. I suspect he’d appreciate getting that Super Bowl ring any way he can.