On Thursday night I was fortunate enough to attend a benefit dinner at Yankee Stadium for an organization dedicated to assisting urban youth, called Street2Street. The special guest was none other than Mark Teixeira. I was not only able to meet Mark, but I also sat at his table during the dinner and got to ask him a fair amount of questions. Everything that I heard about Mark is true: he’s exceedingly polite, professional and business-like. His parents did a good job training him to look someone in the eye when they’re speaking to him. He has very good posture and he said nothing controversial, except when he told me that he thought Joba belonged in the bullpen. Afterwards I told my dad that I can see why writers describe him as bland or robotic, although I found nothing wrong with it. In a lot of ways he was surprisingly normal and calm. He talked about his life in Connecticut, his workout schedule, and his youngest son teething. He asked people at the table questions about their lives. He was like a dinner guest trying to be polite. So why did it strike me as so abnormal?
The reason is because I expect sports superstars to be abnormal. Everything about their lives is different, starting with the way they’re brought up. Look at LeBron James. How young was he when people started treating him differently, deferring to him, trying to please him or curry favor? How young was he when he first realized that people were trying to befriend him to get something from him, rather than because they liked his personality? What was it like for him, or any other sports superstar, to have teachers, friends, coaches and peers cater to him? Before LeBron James turned eighteen years old he was accustomed to being treated like a god, and then the money started rolling in and the real privileges of being truly elite at something started manifesting themselves. How can you expect someone like LeBron to be self-aware and to have empathy for others when he’s been taught to be single-mindedly self-centered his entire life? In retrospect, The Decision seems perfectly consummate with what we’d expect from someone with his background. The fake Twitter account LeBron James’ Ego is popular because it reminds us of what we think is the real LeBron James.
Compared to some other recent star missteps, LeBron’s Decision looks tame. Brett Favre refuses to stay out of the news, whether it’s because of a text messaging scandal with a masseuse or sideline princess or because it’s time for him to retire and unretire again. Alex Rodriguez got caught taking home a stripper in Toronto despite a wife and children at home in New York. Both Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger were accused of rape. Michael Jordan had an alleged gambling problem. Tiger Woods and his mistresses dominated the front pages of New York newspapers for literally weeks on end. These are people who have reached the upper eschelon of the sports world, and their lives are frequently marked by chaos and pain. This isn’t about criticism or passing judgment, and hopefully the comments don’t turn into a flame war about who did what or why so-and-so’s alleged offenses weren’t as bad as people think. The point is not to point a finger at professional athletes; the point is to try to understand why they do the things they do. When you compare your personal formative years with Tiger Woods, when you compare your checking account with Kobe Bryant, and when you think about the insane world of opportunity these guys have in front of them on a daily basis, it’s not that hard to figure out.
This is why I expected a fundamental difference of orientation to arise with Mark at dinner. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he affected a strong storytelling persona, or an arrogant diffidence. It was surprising then to see Mark answering questions like he’s just as nervous as the people around the table and asking questions because he doesn’t want there to be awkward silence. It was surprising to hear Mark ask a tablemate about a planned vacation. I was expecting outsized, overgrown and larger than life. Physically he’s larger than life – he’s built like a brick house and ate his entree in what seemed like four bites – but he seemed most comfortable when he was talking about his son teething.
Tex is frequently described as bland. Maybe it’s simply that he was fortunate enough to go through life without getting stunted and still has his head on straight. He is who he is, he’s not a caricature, a goon or someone playing a part. Maybe that’s boring, and maybe that doesn’t translate into good copy or a witty back page headline. But when you consider the alternatives, maybe being abundantly normal is just flat refreshing.