Yesterday I took my daughter and two of her friends to a Reds game. We sat and watched the Reds get their asses handed to them by the last place Astros, a team so devoid of talent or reputation that I can name at least three personal friends who have an outside shot of playing for them.
At one point in the fifth, the Reds’ catcher, Ryan Hanigan, gave an “excuse me” swing and dropped a nubber between the pitcher’s mound and first base. The second basemen swooped down on it and, though Hanigan busted tail to first, nailed him in a bang-bang play.
My daughter turned to me and said, “He almost made it to first. He must be really fast.”
I nodded. He’s a catcher, I thought.
“Is he the fastest player on the team?” she asked.
“But is he fast?”
I’ve mentioned my daughter and questions, that it is worthless to ignore them, because she will not be denied the inane and ultimately forgettable information she collects when the spirit moves her. “Put it this way,” I say, “He’s not very fast compared to the rest of his teammates. He’s very fast for a normal thirty-one year-old man who doesn’t play baseball and say, works with me at a high school teaching social studies.”
“So he’s slow?”
“Yes and no.”
I had confused her into silence, which was good enough for the moment, but the truth is, how can one explain that Ryan Hanigan is, quite possibly, one of the top 50,000 fastest Americans, but really not that fast for his line of work. For arguments sake, or just to be safe, we’ll say he’s in the top 100,000. Hell let’s go 1,000,000. That doesn’t sound special at all, until you realize that that makes him faster than 97% of the people in this country.
And yet he might be one of the slowest players on his own team.
Ryan Hanigan is a world-class athlete who is also a mediocre athlete.
How do you explain to a eleven-year-old that a person can be great, top one-percent, in a given field, but within one’s rarified peer group, no great shakes? That it’s kind of like physics: skill and talent, like force, mass, etc., are relatively easy to understand on a basic level, but once objects get really small, really big, or really fast, we cease to truly understand them. It becomes completely theoretic.
It’s easy to dimiss the 346th best tennis player in the world as not as good as 345 other tennis players, but that also means she’s better than everyone else on earth except 345 people. You could fit 345 people, shoulder to shoulder, on one floor of my house. It’d be tight, but still, that’s not a lot of people, and that means that whoever number 346 is, she’s really fucking good at tennis, except in relation to her rarified peer group, and therefore not all that good.
Does it register with Roger Federer, or Usain Bolt, or Manny Pacquiao, or Kerri Walsh/Misty May-Treanor, or Drew Brees, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin or whomever just how good they are, that they are as rare as a black hole and as hard to truly understand as General Relativity?
I can’t imagine that registers, because as good as they are, they have to think what all of us think when we’re told that the job we’re doing or have done is of superior quality, i.e., “I hope they don’t look too closely, because it could have been better.” They have to feel, on a certain level, that their performance is a little bit of a fake, right? A fluke? Maybe they ask themselves, “Why can’t everyone else do this? This thing that everyone tells me I do so well?”
Is it possible to understand, to truly understand, that you are the greatest ever at something without literally exploding into a shower of gold confetti and Cracker Jack prizes?
Because if I was the 346th best at something, I’d be an insufferable asshole (I am currently ranked 353 in Biggest Insufferable Assholes in the United States—876th in the world).
The only thing that may possibly humble me is to be SO CLOSE to the best, and see how pathetically I measure up to them. Like Salieri in Amadeus—I would, more than most people, understand how truly incredible the top three or four humans in a particular field are.
Maybe that’s how Ryan Hanigan feels.
Chin up, Ryan. You’re number one in my book (and by number one I mean 346th).