By Jeff Merron
Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the help of our readers -- THIS MEANS YOU! -- Page 2 intends to determine the winner in the Battle for the Soul of Sports by matching the seven deadly sports sins against the seven heavenly sports virtues in a series of head-to-head duels. Today, Jeff Merron pits Sloth vs. Diligence.

In Shaq's last year in L.A., he let himself go so much that many fans thought his weight -- caused by laziness, or sloth, if you will -- was the main reason the Lakers didn't win another title. He couldn't go up for a rebound more than once, he had trouble getting down the floor, lacked agility on defense. He wasn't Shaq.

There might have been other reasons the Lakers didn't grab the NBA title for the fourth time with Shaq in the lineup. But it was pretty easy to point a finger toward O'Neal -- after all, he was a mighty big target.

David Wells said that when he pitched his perfect game, he was half drunk. Is it a testimony to his hard work and conditioning that he could be perfect in that condition, or proof of his slothfulness? He's now over 40 and still a major-league pitcher. Can you truly be lazy and do that?

Allen Iverson misses practices and shootarounds. But A.I. is all-out, hustling more than any player on the floor when game time rolls around. Slacker ... or not?

Tony Gwynn got 3,141 hits during his career, and was well-known for watching videotape until his eyes were bloodshot. But let himself get (and stay) out of shape and played as many as 140 games just once after turning 30. Hard worker, or sloth?

It's not enough to give 100 percent in today's sports environment. In fact, 110 percent is rarely enough, either. Jeff Merron has tracked down many athletes who give 120, 130 ... even 200 percent effort!

Hard to tell.

In sports, we talk all the time about hard work, dedication, giving your all, stepping up -- and we admire athletes who work hard. In fact, there are literally hundreds of athletes who, according to themselves or others, nobody works harder than. Seems impossible, but the point is that huge effort counts for a lot.

We remember Walter Payton's legendary offseason runs up the sand dunes.

Pete Maravich going through his youth with a basketball attached to his hand, taking hundreds of shots a day, practicing dribbling for hours.

George Brett taking BP until his hands bled.

Jerry Rice toughing out long, steep runs that left his occasional workout buddies puffing and puking.

Peyton Manning arriving early in the morning, every morning, to watch hours of tape.

Here's the fight card for Page 2's Battle for the Soul of Sports:

Round 1: Pride vs. Humility
Pride beat Humility, 75 percent to 25 percent.

Round 2: Envy vs. Love
Love beat Envy, 54 to 46

Round 3: Anger vs. Kindness
Anger beat Kindness, 61 to 39

Round 4: Sloth vs. Diligence
Diligence beat Sloth, 77 to 23

Round 5: Greed vs. Charity
Greed beat Charity, 70 to 30

Tuesday, Aug. 9: Sports Gluttony vs. Sports Temperance
Wednesday, Aug. 10: Sports Lust vs. Sports Chastity
Thursday, Aug. 11: And the winner is ...

All these examples -- there are hundreds more -- almost prove the obvious. Only a few of the best athletes get by on talent alone. It takes lots of hard work, usually to the exclusion of everything else, to make it to the top.

Which is why it's so remarkable -- literally -- when a big-leaguer in any sport is a sloth. When an athlete doesn't play hard, shows up at camp out of shape, dogs it, doesn't run out a groundball. But why do most of us consider dogging it perhaps the worst sin in sports?

I've got a theory: Most of us work pretty hard. Who are the co-workers we despise the most? The slackers. They're the ones who don't do their part on a project. Who skip out early when there's deadline work approaching. Who refuse to learn how to use the new computer system, and then keep asking others -- their co-workers, who have taken the time to learn -- to do that part of their job for them.

And most of us make in a year what the average major-leaguer or NBA player earns in a couple of days. We work just as hard, with no glory. So it's natural to become incensed when a lazy multimillionaire only plays when he feels like it.

Thanks to the Web, TV, and sports talk radio, we all know when Shaq waits until the season is about to start to have surgery, when he could have done it months before.

We all know that last week Manny Ramirez refused to pinch hit because it was his "day off," and didn't run out a grounder. Such behavior becomes public, and in the sports world, ubiquitous, and even legendary.

We see the guys who don't hustle on every play, or, as my colleague Kurt Snibbe put it: "See Garret swing. See Garret hit a two-bouncer to short. See shortstop bobble the ball. See ball dribble into shallow right. See second baseman get ball and throw to first. See Garret Anderson thrown out because HE WAS DOGGING IT DOWN THE LINE AGAIN!!!!!"

Note the all-caps. Usually that's offensive, in e-mail, but we can all understand Kurt's emotion.

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We see the big fellas -- John Daly, for example -- whom we might find lovable, but who could be so much better if they only bothered to get into decent shape. We hear Randy Moss say he only plays when he feels like it.

We know that late in the sixth game of the 1999 Mets-Braves NLCS, Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla were in the locker room playing cards as the game, which eventually eliminated the Mets, went into extra innings. They didn't go cheer on their teammates as they tried to force another game. They didn't console them after the loss, which ended the season. The card game went on.

It was reported at the time that some Mets were so angry they were tempted to pound Bonilla and Henderson with their bats.

So many of the goods could have been great. So many of the greats could have been greater. And who knows how many games and championships could have been won if not for the slothful? It's pretty rare that a player's laziness can be directly linked to a team's failure. There are too many other variables, including plain old luck.

But still, sloth is often identifiable in most sports, and it irks us the most when we see it in team sports. We fans know how hard 95 percent of the athletes work -- for personal glory, for the good of the team, and, most of all, because most athletes at the elite level simply don't want to lose. So when we see one guy dogging it, it makes us mad. Mad for our team. Mad for the sports we love. Mad because we've worked with the sloths, and we didn't like it one bit.

Lots of old ballplayers (and fans) lament that it's just not like it was in the good old days, when everyone played hard, played hurt, played with bloody noses and heads and broken legs. Ryne Sandberg was heading that way, clearly, when he gave his Hall of Fame speech last Sunday. (Not practicing "the fundamentals" is a code phrase of laziness, after all.) Chuck Bednarik, the last of the 60-minute men in football, went on a diatribe just before the 2005 Super Bowl, saying that, unlike himself, most NFL players "suck air after five plays." To sum up his general sentiment: Most players are overpaid and lazy.

But that's tantamount to saying that basic human nature has changed in just a few decades. Countless old-timers drank too much, got too fat, didn't run out the grounders, didn't make it to practice because they had "a headache." And got tired quickly because they weren't in the best shape. Countless current players in all sports bust their butts and display remarkable endurance.

So who's winning the sloth vs. diligence battle in sports? Diligence, by a mile. After all, if most athletes were lazy, the sloths wouldn't stand out -- and offend us -- nearly as much as they do. The sloths make us mad in part because they're rare.

Hard work and diligence are built into our country. It's the American way, no matter what color your skin, what religion, where you were born -- to work to get ahead, to embrace what used to be commonly called the Protestant work ethic. Hard work often (but not nearly always) pays off.

And when it does pay off, as it does for the millionaires we see in the bigs, or the semipros playing in college, we expect something in exchange: all-out excellence.

And when it's not delivered, we get mad. Because it's our time that's wasted when our sports heroes -- or entertainers, as Barry Bonds might put it -- fail to hustle. And, in one way or another, it's usually our money. Slothly slackers are the worst kind of cheaters, because they're cheating us.