Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Midwestern Modesty and a Minnesota Handshake

The Minnesota Twins opened a brand-new stadium this season and the pièce de résistance of the $522 million structure is a giant cartoon image of two baseball players shaking hands. The two smiling men represent each of the Twin Cities and their hands extend across the Mississippi river. Every time a Twins player hits a home run, their hands embrace in a vigorous neon shake.

Ray Barton, the man that drew the original image of the Twins handshake, died this week. He was able to witness the construction of the stadium but his illness kept him from attending opening day. He may not have minded, though.

On the set of an internet talk show last weekend, I had a conversation with sportswriter Will Leitch about the new Twins stadium. The fellow midwesterner commented that the handshake was "the most polite home run celebration in baseball." It is fitting that Minnesota, a state known for its niceness, would have such a modest celebration for sports success. Barton was originally paid only $15 for his illustration and it seems that he never embraced its prominence in the state's culture. Maybe it was his Minnesota politeness that kept him from commemorating his work's success. Or maybe it was something more than that.

"He told me he never really liked it. It wasn't one of his crowning achievements," Tony Barton, one of the illustrator's six children, told the Pioneer Press recently. "He was a cartoonist, a writer, a creative director, but he never really thought it was that great. And if you look at it close, it really isn't. Anyone out of art school could have done it. He just happened to be the one who did it."

I haven't visited Minnesota in almost a year now and there was something about the bluntness of this quote that made me oddly homesick. I moved away to a place where success is more prominent, searching for some of my own. Midwestern modesty is cliche but true--my conversation with Will, who's from small town, Illinois, was full of earnest smiles and sincere listening. Reading this quote, though, made me realize that there's something underneath all that Minnesota Nice.

Barton politely deflected praise of his iconic illustration because he felt that it was undeserved. Deep down he knew that it was a crap drawing and this knowledge kept him from enjoying its success. He died of cancer at the age of 80 and he likely spent his whole career striving for an artistic accomplishment that he could be unequivocally proud of. When I think of this, I think of my dad, a humble, hard-working artist, and I think of myself, a tinkerer striving for success. Modesty, it seems, is oftentimes the manifestation of knowing that one can do better. One can always do better. But, in struggling for artistic achievement, if one does not stop and enjoy the high-fives and backslaps and handshakes, this achievement will always remain out of reach.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Yankee Gluttony and the Myth of the Market

New York sports fans are all a bunch of Augustus Gloops. Spoiled by the fact that they have at least two franchises in every major sport and the ownership riches that come with being the #1 TV market in the country, New Yorkers play a constant drumbeat of More, More, More. Even in the wake of success (actually, especially in the wake of success), New Yorkers expect their teams to acquire more and more and more talent--usually at the detriment of smaller market Charlies.

Before all-star catcher Joe Mauer re-signed with the Minnesota Twins this Spring, New Yorkers figured it a foregone conclusion that the 26-year-old would sign with the Yankees next season. When the Twins were in town for the first round of the A.L. playoffs last year, the coveting was so pervasive that New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro pleaded, "Keep your daydreams of Joe Mauer in pinstripes to yourself."

Now that Mauer has signed a New York-caliber contract extension with the Twins, the attention has turned to LeBron James. Last week ESPN launched a new, New York-specific sports site and, unsurprisingly, the homepage bore the image of King James wearing a Knicks uniform. James currently plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him as an 18-year-old out of Akron's St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, but as of July 1st, he will be a free agent. Of course the New York sports community thinks that the Knicks are his best option.

Now I admit that, being from Minnesota, the longtime home of sports disappointment and the former home of Chuck Knoblauch, Stephon Marbury, and Johan Santana, I am jealous of New York's success (fittingly, now that I live in New York, I root for the Mets). Even in my jealousy, though, I have to acknowledge that, as Marbury pointed out when leaving the Timberwolves for the Nets, "It's a business." In baseball, especially, the league's lack of a salary cap allows rich teams like the Yankees to get ever richer as they can easily outbid lower tier teams for the best players. Money talks and begrudging the Yankees for being able to afford top talent would be like Australians begruding Hollywood for luring all of their top action stars. The mid-market Twins were able to lock up the Minnesota-born Mauer only after making him the highest paid non-Yankee in the league (as The New York Times pointed out, "There was no hometown discount for the hometown boy.") In the case of LeBron James (another hometown boy), however, the Yankee gluttony has morphed into a state of outright delusion.

Of James' impending free agency, ESPN-New York columnist Ian O'Connor wrote, "He should honor the magnitude of his game, his persona and his appeal and do a summer deal with the Knicks." Since the Cavaliers can pay James $30 million more than the Knicks can, New Yorkers have shifted their pitch away from dollars. Instead, they now focus on New York being, well, New York. There's a commonheld belief that James could grow his legacy and earn more endorsement dollars by playing on Madison Square Garden's grand stage, hence neutralizing the Cav's $30M. This is nonsense.

The value of a market to an athlete is currently one of the most overrated factors in sports. According to Forbes, of the top 10 highest paid athletes in 2009, none were from New York and many competed in individual sports--golfers, Formula One drivers--and have no connection to a specific city or state. Micheal Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the highest ranked basketball players on the list: Jordan doesn't play anymore and spends much of his time now in Charlotte, NC and Bryant's wealth was enhanced last year largely because of his international appeal (his is the top-selling NBA jersey in Europe and China). Beyond basketball, the highest earning player in football, Peyton Manning, plays in the 25th biggest TV market and the highest paid player in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, earns relatively little in endorsements despite playing in New York. There was a time when athletes could garner more money by playing in a top tier market but, according to James' current teamate Shaquille O'Neal, who was #11 on the Forbes list, those times are gone. O'Neal told The New York Times last year, “You don’t have to be in a big market anymore.”

In sports, character and story matter much more than the performance venue. Ultimately, Mauer's decision to sign a long-term contract to remain the Twin Cities' Joltin' Joe will enhance his legacy more than if he were to become another passing pinstripe idol. James seems to understand this as he's been busy writing the free agency chapter of his own story. “No team LeBron James is on will ever be under the radar,” he told reporters recently.