In the relentless coverage of Tim Tebow, we have heard from every football analyst in America that the sturdy quarterback's style and body type and throwing motion don't necessarily conform to the position he plays, which has got us to thinking: All that is supposedly wrong with Tebow is what is right about baseball. The game of baseball allows its players to throw a ball, catch a ball, swing a bat and run whatever way they like, no matter how unconventional, inartistic or ridiculous it might be or look, as long as it works.
Ty Cobb, a lifetime .367 hitter, used a split grip on the bat. Hank Aaron, who hit 755 home runs and had 2,297 RBIs, batted cross-handed at times before he got to the big leagues. Stan Musial, one of the top 10 hitters of all time, used a batting stance that was so strange, it wouldn't be recommended for anyone. Cal Ripken was the man of a thousand batting stances, and the late, great Gene Mauch once said Ripken "had the worst swing of any great player I've ever seen.'' But it worked. As did that odd stance for Jeff Bagwell, and the imperfect swing that has worked for Mark Teixeira and hundreds of others. Not everyone can have a perfect swing like Ken Griffey Jr. That's what makes the game so fascinating.
Baseball doesn't require all its pitchers to have the same pitching motion because if they all did, it would be so much easier for the hitter, it would be like hitting off a batting machine. In spring training 2010, when the Tigers' Max Scherzer was getting pounded, a scout looked at a writer and said, "What have they done with this guy? He used to be so herky-jerky, the hitter couldn't see the ball. They've smoothed out his delivery, and now he's getting hammered.'' Pitching is indeed about disrupting a hitter's timing. That's why Dan Quisenberry was so effective throwing submarine style, and why Dennis Eckersley made it to the Hall of Fame slinging it from the side, and why Craig Kimbrel won the National League Rookie of the Year: His arm slot and motion make the ball appear to rise late in the zone, which is so disconcerting to a hitter. Perfect mechanics allowed Nolan Ryan to throw a baseball as hard as any man alive for 25 years, but he is a freak of nature. The rest of the pitchers have to find something different to get hitters out, and if a pitcher's delivery resembles a man falling out of a tree, arms and legs flying everywhere, all the better.
It is not necessary to field a ground ball or catch a fly ball the exact same way: Willie Mays' famous basket catch in center field during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series was unique, and has never been duplicated. Omar Vizquel is perhaps the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, and though he is fundamentally perfect in so many ways, he also catches ground balls on the run when as a kid you're always taught not to, he barehands balls when he shouldn't, he backhands balls when others get in front of them, and he has been known to turn his back to home plate to catch a popup in order to shield his eyes from the sun. "I wasn't taught to get in front of that ball, or knock that ball down, I was taught to catch the ball whatever way possible,'' Vizquel said. Watch Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy catch a ground ball. He almost always catches it with one hand, using his right hand only for the really difficult chances. "I wouldn't recommend this way to kids,'' Hardy said, smiling, "but it works for me.''
One of the best parts about baseball is that it's open to all shapes and sizes. When 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson and 5-foot-9 Billy Wagner became teammates for the first time in 1998 while with the Astros, Johnson said, "I can't believe it, he's a foot shorter than me and he throws harder than I do.'' When Pedro Martinez first came to professional ball, he weighed 138 pounds and threw 93 mph. Tim Lincecum, the newest Freak, was throwing in the low 90s soon after he reached 5 feet tall. And, according to legend, the hardest thrower of all time was Steve Dalkowski. "He threw so hard,'' Cal Ripken Sr. once told me, "I was catching him in the bullpen one night before a game, I wasn't wearing my mask, I never saw the ball, and it hit me in the side of the face. It knocked me out for a second.'' Dalkowski was about 5-9.
Only in baseball can Prince Fielder, who is short and squat and unbelievably strong, be on the same level as Mike Stanton, who is 6-5, 240 pounds and has a size 32 waist. In the last year of his career, a shirtless Tony Gwynn made you wonder how he could ever put a ball in play, let alone have the highest career average since Ted Williams, and a shirtless Greg Maddux looked more librarian than player, but he is a great athlete, the seventh best pitcher ever. David Eckstein is just over 5-6, and he was the starting shortstop on two championship teams and won the 2006 World Series MVP over teammate Albert Pujols, which, in basketball terms, would be like Steve Kerr winning the NBA Finals MVP as a teammate to Michael Jordan. That simply couldn't happen, but does all the time in baseball.
Dustin Pedroia is Eckstein's height, and he won the 2008 AL MVP. Pedroia's hands are so small, former Red Sox manager Terry Francona once said, "It's like shaking hands with a 7-year-old.'' Compare Pedroia's hands to the hands of the other great second baseman in the AL East, the Yankees' Robinson Cano, whose hands are unbelievably big and strong, almost as strong as those of the Cardinals' Matt Holliday. "When I signed with the Cardinals,'' said St. Louis outfielder Lance Berkman, "I had to take a hand-strength test for my physical. I took it once. The trainer asked me, 'Can you take it again?' So I did. He said, 'Usually someone with 300 career homers has more hand strength than you have.' I looked at him, 'Well, this is the best I can do. Sorry.' I had to later tell him not to compare my hand-strength test to Matt Holliday's. He has the strongest hands in the world.''
Big hands, small hands, big guys, small guys, strange stances, pitching motions and ways to field a ground ball, they are all what make baseball the best game in the world. Think of that the next time you watch the magnificent Ichiro. You have to wonder how he ever hits the ball, allowing his front half to drift like he does, yet somehow he keeps his hands back. Think about that the next time you watch the Phillies' Hunter Pence; he does everything wrong mechanically, has a big hitch in his swing and has a peculiar throwing motion, but he can really play. Think of that the next time you see Tim Tebow. He would be perfect for baseball.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN