by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts
ESPN.com recently ran a story about Boston Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youklis, who they described as the definition of the 'blue collar athlete'. Youklis is a hitter not taken to niceties, he has a job to do every game and will give his all every time he steps up to the plate.1 Working hard to make the pitcher work even harder and get himself on base, Youklis may not put up the performances that win awards, but he can be relied upon to get himself on base a high proportion of the time. Getting players on base is something my own San Francisco Giants appear destined to continue to fail at while they remain dedicated to sticking with the highly paid and under-motivated.
Despite being an Australian and therefore morally (and spiritually) bound to never allow Americanisms to enter my vernacular, I have to defer to Uncle Sam in this instance as I reckon their word for the type of player Youklis is just about perfect. Youklis is a 'Gamer'. A gamer relishes competition and the heat of the moment when they need to be relied upon. They 'have a crack' or give it a 'red hot go' always and this is their strength.
On one of the few televised games of Major League Baseball that enter the Australian airwaves I was able to watch Youklis and his Red Sox play against the New York Yankees that included another player who works hard at bat and maybe (at least to my untrained eye) meets the definition of a gamer, Nick Swisher.2 Swisher like Youklis makes the pitchers work to his strengths and does not tire of doing the un-dramatic such as drawing walks.
I remember watching the NBA during the Michael Jordan era and being surprised that among the flashy skills of players like Jordan, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, or Tim Hardaway here was this white guy3 making all-star teams and holding his own. This white guy was Chris Mullin, and he was a gamer too. Mullin's gamer effort was as much about his work on the practice court as it was in game play. In honouring his elevation to the Hall of Fame Grantland.com called Mullin a dying breed, a rarity not blessed with natural athleticism who made the grade. Mullins drive to succeed and develop his skills took him to the top of his sport.
Jumping across to the most notable of the world games leagues the EPL and we find gamers there too. Unlucky not to secure all the major individual awards for last years Premier League, Scott Parker proved to be a larger than life character for West Ham as they fought to retain their place in the top flight. Parker routinely was the only reason why the Hammers managed to secure points throughout the season because he was always up for the fight and was willing to grab his team mates by the scruff of the neck to do likewise. Unfortunately it was all in vain4.
Newcastle's5 Joey Barton is another player always up for the fight, though he is an example of erring on the side of going over the top, and probably the aging Phil Neville. Both players were potential targets of both North London clubs who need hardening up this year if they stand any chance of finishing above 5th and 6th in the league.
You may begin to get the feeling that the definition of a gamer is restricted short on natural talent or natural athleticism but gets the most out of what they do have. This is not true. Moving to our third continent we find a phenomenal gamer who has both the huge amount of natural talent, and athletic capability.
Chris Judd in 2011 continues to prove that he is the best player Australian football has currently, and will finish up at the very least in the top ten of all time. All followers know how amazing his skills are and his athleticism and strength are amazing, but his insatiable desire for the contest is what drags him to be a cut above the rest. West Coast won a premiership because of him, and Carlton stand a chance of winning one in the near future for the same reason. Take him out of either team and they may still be a chance, but I reckon he almost doubles the chance of any team he plays in.
Looking back into history you find Michael Jordan, the greatest on the hardwood of all time and a serious gamer. Take the opportunity and watch his 'flu game' in the 1997 championship series against Utah. The only reason the Chicago Bulls won that game was Michael Jordan. Illness stripped him of his usually immense physical capacity, yet his drive to win dragged his team over the line. Even the greatest of skills and athleticism can get taken to the next level.
I love watching these players in any sport. They are the reason why we as spectators enjoy the contest. I wrote recently about my favourite cricketer of all time Allan Border, without him I would not have witnessed the great success of the Australian cricket team.
We owe these gamers the most respect in the games they play.
1 First time in my life I have ever used this phrase literally rather than figuratively.
2 Previously only notable to me for appearing in an episode of 'How I Met Your Mother'.
3 With a buzz-cut tribute to Dolph Lundgren.
4 Trouble is that no matter how great Parker was, Avram Grant was more than equally bad.