Altuve's Play Was Great. No, Really. It was Great
There was never any doubt. As he rounded third base in the ninth inning on Saturday, Houston Astros second baseman José Altuvé was going to be out by at least ten feet at home. The diminutive Altuvé was trying to score from first base on a hit into the right-centre gap by Carlos Correa.
With the score tied at one in the ALCS Game Two, Altuvé was the only one who had a chance to make a winner out of Houston’s veteran pitcher Justin Verlander, who’d spun a 124-pitch masterpiece to that point. It was also a chance to send the New York Yankees home to the Bronx trailing two games to none, a tough hole.
But if he was thrown out— as seemed likely— it would give the Yanks momentum and the chance to win the game in the tenth inning with Verlander surely pulled from the game. For a franchise that had never won a World Series, having their star thrown out by ten feet would be more of the pain the franchise had endured over the years.
So Altuvé knew what was risking on his mad dash as he ran past the Astros’ startled third base coach. Sure enough, the relay throw from Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius came toward a waiting New York catcher Gary Sanchez in plenty of time to get Altuvé. Bad gamble by the Houston sparkplug.
But then the relay throw took a short hop just in front of Sanchez. The Yanks catcher seemed to know who was barreling toward him and the consequences of fielding the throw cleanly. Maybe it was haste to grab the ball to tag the speedy Astros player. Maybe it was the knowledge that Altuvé was a crafty player who’d likely make a smart slide.
Whatever the reasons, Sanchez bobbled the bounced throw, Altuvé knifed past him to touch home with the winning run in the game. Astros win. Pandemonium in Houston.
How to describe the play? Great might be the best descriptor. Altuvé— who’ll likely be the AL MVP— is a great player. The timing, the daring, the drama— all very exceptional. You might see a play that dynamic in a playoff game once a year. if that. Great by any definition.
But the five-letter word great has become the most overworked superlative in sports. Its currency as a way to mark out something unique is as worthless as a Confederate dollar. Great is now used to describe everything that we used to call terrific, excellent, exceptional, brilliant. It’s also used to describe things we used to call interesting, okay, pleasing and diverting.
“What a great play!” “He’s a great player.” “That was a great move.” The Rod Black vocabulary. Used so casually, they rob the true meaning of Altuvé’s audacious dash in Game Two. Or the stoic effort of Verlander— a sure Hall of Fame pitcher— as he mowed down the New Yorkers with a mix from his arsenal of pitches.
Altuvé is a great player, one of the top five in baseball at the moment. But if you listen to the TV talking heads or the radio voices, Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays is a great player. As is catcher Russell Martin. So are any number of good players who make the occasional notable play on the diamond.
The same in hockey. Sidney Crosby is a great player. But Phil Kessel is also called a great player. So is P.K. Subban. And Milan Lucic. When what they do is exhibit some of the elements that make greatness. Crosby has them all. There might be five great players in the NHL playing at their peak at the moment. But you could stock about ten teams with the guys broadcasters and pundits deem great.
This abuse of superlatives extends to the word "success" as well. During Game Two, various players were said to have good success against a certain hitter or hitting a particular pitch. Is there bad success?
We don’t need this much great. We need more terrific, excellent, exceptional, brilliant. So that when we have those players, those moments like Game Two we can use the word great and it will resound with us in a warm, satisfying hum at having seen something we will tell people about in ten years.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)