Do we need heroes in sports?

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Buzz Bissinger has a post up over at The Daily Beast today, lamenting the absence of colorful heroes, rakes and rogues in sports today:

Sports are bigger than ever. It occupies us more than ever. It is ever exploding. There are still routinely great performances. But behind those performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic … Are there any athletes in the modern-day era of sports either truly heroic or just truly colorful?

He comes up with a few examples. In the hero category he rightfully cites Pat Tillman, although his heroism had little to do with sports as such.  He also names a couple of people who fit the “colorful” bill well enough by virtue of their lack of self-censorship, like Rex Ryan, but notes that, for the most part, sports figures are programmed to be dull and non-responsive and private.

And he’s right.  It’s just that I just don’t know that this is a problem for anyone besides sports writers looking for juicy quotes.  While I love the stories about players of yore, the ones I love the most aren’t really about heroism as we tend to define it within the context of sports.  They’re the things written by or about people on the margins (think Jim Bouton), not the stuff written about the big names as they’re making their big marks.  The Mickey Mantle book that came out last year was way more insightful and interesting than anything anyone got from him when he was the king of the world.

Moreover, I don’t know that, insight aside, it’s all that healthy for our society to celebrate athletes as heroes.  How many of those would-be heroes pan out as true heroes over time?  How many role models turn out to be anything but?  Bissinger correctly notes that the relatively bloodless content of the game — the live action and recaps and box scores and all of that — has taken precedence, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  If anything, it helps us to remember that sports are just that — sports — and not some substitute for real life. As always, XKCD got it right when it comes to identifying what we’re really doing when we try to make sporting events into something greater than what they are.

I get what Bissinger is saying. And as someone who grew up on the sort of sports coverage in which heroes and rogues meant everything, I too sort of miss the lack of color we see today and like it when someone breaks from the “I’m just trying to help the ballclub” script.

But I don’t know that it’s a bad thing in an absolute sense. It’s just where sports and society is heading. And it may very well us to bring some different perspectives into the sporting world that could, just maybe, make our society’s relationship with sports a bit more healthy than it was in an age where narratives were applied and dramatic roles were assigned to people playing what are, in effect, random games.

Free agent slugger José Abreu signs 3-year, $58.5M deal with Astros

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
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HOUSTON — Jose Abreu and the World Series champion Astros agreed to a three-year, $58.5 million contract, adding another powerful bat to Houston’s lineup.

Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP, gets $19.5 million in each of the next three seasons.

He spent his first nine major league seasons with the Chicago White Sox. The first baseman became a free agent after batting .304 with 15 home runs, 75 RBIs and an .824 OPS this year.

With the Astros, he replaces Yuli Gurriel at first base in a batting order that also features All-Star sluggers Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker.

Gurriel became a free agent after Houston defeated the Philadelphia Phillies this month for its second World Series championship.

The 35-year-old Abreu becomes the biggest free agent to switch teams so far this offseason. Born in Cuba, the three-time All-Star and 2014 AL Rookie of the Year is a .292 career hitter in the majors with 243 homers, 863 RBIs and an .860 OPS.

The Astros announced the signing. Abreu was scheduled to be introduced in a news conference at Minute Maid Park.

He would get a $200,000 for winning an MVP award, $175,000 for finishing second in the voting, $150,000 for third, $125,000 for fourth and $100,000 for fifth. Abreu also would get $100,000 for earning World Series MVP and $75,000 for League Championship Series MVP, $75,000 for making the All-Star team and $75,000 for winning a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger.

Abreu gets a hotel suite on road trips and the right to buy a luxury suite for all Astros home games.