Question for the house: What takes more, being the best player on the worst baseball team or the best player on the best team? I’m looking at the Marvelous Mullins of the Baltimore Orioles as one of the greatest seasons by an individual Oriole comes to a close. Cedric has hit 30 home runs while successfully stealing 30 bases — the rare 30-30 achievement — and he will certainly be named the Most Valuable Player on a team that, as of this writing, is tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks as MLB’s worst, with 105 losses.
What requires more — being the best on the worst or being the best on the best?
The easy answer — and to some minds, surely, it’s not even debatable — is the latter: For an athlete (or anyone) to be a high achiever when his or her team (or company) performs at a top level requires being consistently productive in a high-pressure, high-profile environment. To be great “where the air is rare” requires extraordinary skills and mental powers.
My boyhood hero was Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox. He won the American League Triple Crown in 1967, leading the previously awful Sox to the pennant and World Series. The Sox lost the Series to St. Louis in seven games, but for six months before that Yaz was at the top of his game, owning left field, focused at the plate, hitting the most home runs, knocking in the most runs and logging the highest batting average in the league. He was Superman on a winning team. Even more impressive was Frank Robinson of the Orioles, who won the Triple Crown the previous season and led Baltimore to the World Series championship in 1966.
Now, 55 years later, consider Cedric Mullins, the best player on a losing team. You could conclude that his achievement, while remarkable, is diminished by the lack of pressure he faced. No one believed the Orioles would finish anywhere but last this season. What Mullins did means less, you might argue, because his team failed and failed badly. To be the best among the worst, what’s the big deal?
But there are many great players who had long careers with bad teams, some Hall of Famers who never reached or won a World Series. What I admired in them, I admire in Mullins and admire in all who achieve greatness in the shadows — their pride, poise, consistency, the ability to concentrate on the mission even when the boat leaks. You have to steel yourself to the daily challenge and defy the odds. Life can get pretty miserable — when your team goes through long losing streaks, when your company hits a bad patch, when your health takes a hit, when your city (or your country) goes through strife. So it takes uber mental toughness to keep your eye on the ball. And please forgive that last damn metaphor, but I found it irresistible when I think of the Marvelous Mullins and the life lesson he gave us this season. Congratulations to the center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, and long may he roam there.