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Comparing Greatness In Sports


SISTER WINONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game being played each day. Life...


It's time for sports with the guy we turn to every Sunday, just because we like him and he keeps answering the phone when we call, NPR's Mike Pesca.


MARTIN: Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The second thing first, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, pretty much.

PESCA: Yeah. He's there and 'cause that we like him. But he's there.


MARTIN: Yeah, mostly you're there.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what do you want to talk about this week?

PESCA: Well, I was thinking there are a couple of things going on in the world of sports. Of course, baseball playoffs, but people are debating who should win the American League MVP. And in football, a big record is going to be passed. And what do they all have in common? As I detail each one, perhaps you'll begin to think, Oh, what Mike is talking about is how we compare greatness.


PESCA: So let's with baseball, where there is...


PESCA: ...one player named Miguel Cabrera whose Tigers are still in the post-season, and one player named Mike Trout whose Angels have been eliminated, both...

MARTIN: Wait. Cabrera, I've heard that guy's name. Something big happened to him.

PESCA: Well, you're probably thinking of Melky Cabrera who was thrown out of baseball for steroids.


PESCA: This is a different guy...


PESCA: ...named - or maybe you are thinking of Miguel Cabrera because he won the Triple Crown.

MARTIN: Triple Crown, yeah.

PESCA: Right, so he led the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average, and that hasn't been done since 1967. And Cabrera powered his team down the stretch and his team is in the postseason. Add it all up - how could he not win the most valuable player award. But then there's this Mike Trout kid - and I do say kid. He's 21. He was a rookie. He'll certainly win Rookie of the Year, and he led the league in stolen basis and he was second in batting average and he blew away the field in the amount of runs scored. And offense tends to correlate with how many runs you score. So, there's this debate and it's...

MARTIN: Wait. So, just back up a second. These two are in the running for MVP.

PESCA: It will definitely be one of the two. And it will probably be Cabrera. But Mike Trout plays a much more important defensive position. And by advanced metrics, what are called saber metrics, Mike Trout had the best season. And so this is where you get columnists, like Rob Parker, who works at ESPN, tweeted - hold on.


PESCA: Wait, I think I might have it in this thing I just threw out. Hold on, hold on, hold on. OK, OK, I got it - with a tweet that says: To all those stat geeks, put your calculators down and watch the damn game.


PESCA: Is that really necessary? Brandon McCarthy didn't think so. McCarthy, an actual major league pitcher, said those are the words of an expert debater, one who's employed by the biggest sports media company in the country? Embarrassing. And embarrassing they are to be called out by a player for calling you not good at debate.


MARTIN: So, what's the solution? I mean, one of these guys is going to win in the end.

PESCA: Yeah, one of these guys has to win. The thing is I don't think you could have a misvote in that, although a lot of people think that if you don't vote for one or the other, you're a total idiot who should have his vote taken away. So, the other example of greatness that I alluded to - Drew Brees this Sunday against San Diego has a chance to throw...

MARTIN: Drew Brees - backing up - QB, New Orleans Saints, right?

PESCA: That's right.


PESCA: So, OK. So, Drew Brees has the chance for a touchdown pass against the San Diego Chargers. That will be his 48th straight game with a touchdown pass. He will surpass Johnny Unitas, who also had 47 straight games with touchdown passes. And the way this is being processed is I think a lot of people are looking back saying, you know, Johnny Unitas's record is much more impressive because he came about in an era when you threw a lot less. And that's all fair enough, but I ask you...


PESCA: ...if it was so easy in the modern game to pass Johnny Unitas, how come Tom Brady didn't do it? How come Peyton Manning didn't do it? My point here is that we say, well, which one was better? Which one was more impressive? You know, I think...

MARTIN: And you think this should happen? You shouldn't be - you should just say everyone's great. Can't we love each other?

PESCA: Yeah, exactly. Can't we love each other? That's what I say. No, I say that all this subjective stuff - you know, when it comes to acting, sure, we give the Academy Award, but I think a great fan of movies or stage acting doesn't necessarily have to rank who's better than the other one. But with sports it doesn't even happen. There's no opportunity for the appreciation of greatness - simultaneous greatness - and that's what this whole spiel was a call for.


PESCA: I mean, is it a coherent thesis here, or am I just not wanting to tell you who I'd vote for for MVP?

MARTIN: I kind of feel like you're dodging - you just don't want to make a decision.

PESCA: Oh, God. All right. Unitas more impressive and Cabrera for MVP.

MARTIN: OK, fine. You heard it here first.

PESCA: But I like the other guys too.


MARTIN: Yeah. You can't have it all. OK. So, you do have a curveball for us?

PESCA: I do. Craig Kimbrel, who's more known for his fastball than his curveball - relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves - what he did in the regular season was, I think, just amazing. I talked about a few weeks ago, a relief pitcher on the Reds, Aroldis Chapman, who was pitching at a rate where he was striking out half the batters he faced. Chapman didn't get there, but Kimbrel did. This has never happened before. He fanned more than half the batters he faced. And the other amazing thing about Craig Kimbrel's regular season is that he never gave up more than a hit in any of his 63 appearances that he made. That's a relief pitcher.

MARTIN: That is greatness. You're great, Mike. NPR's Mike Pesca.

PESCA: Thank you.


CARR: (Singing) Life is a ballgame, being played each day. You know, life is a ballgame, each and everybody can play. Yes, you know, Jesus is standing at the home plate, he's waiting for you there. Well, you know life is a ballgame but you've got to play it fair.

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.