Two players retired in the last few days, and they could not be much different. Football and baseball. Black and white. One -- as Jim Murray famously wrote -- had the body of a Greek God, the other the body of a Greek Restaurant. One was an athletic phenomenon who both pushed the limits of sports achievement and underachievement. The other guy looked like your uncle. They have nothing to do with each other. They don't belong in the same retirement story. But they happened to retire within a couple of days of each other. And I just started writing.
Randy Moss was both the best and worst wide receiver I ever saw play professional football. That's some trick. And the funny part is whichever one he happened to be playing at the time -- best or worst -- he inspired devil's advocates. Maybe talent like that just naturally draws critics and defenders.
When Moss was leading NFL receivers in touchdowns (he did that FIVE times), or when he topped 1,200 yards receiving (eight times; only Jerry Rice did it more) or when he had one of those magical 100-yard, two touchdown receiving games (26 times, one behind Rice), some people wanted to downplay his brilliance. Then again, when he was playing dead -- particularly in Oakland -- some people wanted to blame his surroundings, his quarterback, his coach, his health, anything at all but the man himself.
"What do you EXPECT him to do?" more than one person emailed me when I spent a day training all my attention on Moss in Oakland. His performance was unfathomable. He did not even run out his routes. He did not even attempt to get open. It was the most grotesque display of "I don't care" I've ever seen in professional sports, and this includes LeBron at the end of his Cleveland days. And yet, when I wrote that, many people jumped to his defense. Hey, the Raiders stink! His quarterback can't throw! "What do I expect him to do?"
I thought. How about TRY?
Other times, he was so good it seemed like there was literally no viable way to defend him.
And this was the thing about Randy Moss. He inspired mixed feelings.
* * *
Matt Stairs, in his marvelous career, played baseball for 12 teams -- 13 teams if you think the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals are two different teams (and I do). This is a not an inconsequential point. Other players -- specifically Octavio Dotel, Mike Morgan and Ron Villone -- have played for 12 different teams. But nobody else has played for 13. Thirteen teams, at least for the moment, at least until Dotel finds another club, is the realm of Matt Stairs and him alone.
Those 13 teams, incidentally, do not even include the team he played for in Japan.
Matt Stairs homered in 38 different big league ballparks and, perhaps more to the point, struck out in 44 different parks. He started a game in every spot in the lineup. He owned David Cone and Roy Halladay, but couldn't touch Rick Helling. He was signed as a promising hockey player/infielder out of Canada with a bit of speed and athleticism -- the guy played 29 games of SHORTSTOP in the minors. He ended up a softball-looking behemoth who swung from the heels and was sent to the plate in those desperate moments when only a home run could save the day.
Matthew Wade Stairs will not go to the Hall of Fame. But he should definitely have a beer named for him.
* * *
Here was one of my favorite ever football plays … I've written about this before. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing the Minnesota Vikings, and this was the year the Chiefs started out 9-0. They were 12-2 when they went to Minnesota, though by then it was pretty clear that Kansas City's defense -- with Greg Robinson running the show -- was, um, er, let's say "challenged." It wasn't just that the Chiefs defense was bad. They were bad, yes. But they also seemed utterly baffled much of the time. They had no idea what to do half the time. That's what I mean by challenged. The Vikings would take a 31-0 lead at some point in the third quarter.
Well, earlier, the Vikings had the ball on the Chiefs 21, and the cornerback covering Randy Moss showed blitz too soon. At this, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper backed off. He pointed at Moss. He made various hand signals, but not the sort of covert hand signals you normally see in the NFL. No, these were bold, demonstrative gestures -- the sort Christopher Guest teaches in the Male Synchronized Swimmer documentary ("Hey you! I know you! I know you!")
And Culpepper's gestures basically said: "Hey you! Go out long! That guy will blitz! You will be open! I will throw you a touchdown pass!" At this point, that chicken that can play tic-tac-toe would have known to call off the blitz, but the defender blitzed anyway, Moss was wide open, Culpepper threw him the touchdown pass.
And in so many ways, that's the image I have of Moss at his best -- open, free, catching touchdown passes so easily you wondered why any defender even bothered.
* * *
I've always admired athletes who know their jobs. That's a tough thing, if you think about it -- every professional athlete was once the very best player in the neighborhood. They dominated high school. They starred in college. They expected, for much of their life, to be able to do ANYTHING. They, most of them, all of them, surely did not dream of becoming role players, utility infielders, special teamers or hockey muckers.
But only one becomes Jordan … or Gretzky … or Pujols.
Matt Stairs came to the plate to hit home runs. That was his job. It did not start out that way. He was an infielder. He was scrappy. In an alternate reality, he would have gotten a chance in the big leagues when he was 24 rather than 30, he would have played his bulk years in a better hitters ballpark than Oakland, he would have been given another chance to play every day after he turned 33. But that was not his reality. And so, for 15 years -- from the time he was 29 to when he retired at 43 -- he swung from the heels, struck out a lot, walked some, caught the balls he could reach, got traded and sold and released and signed and (when the weather was right) he hit baseballs very, very hard.
Was that what Matt Stairs dreamed? How often is life what you dream?
* * *
People who saw Randy Moss play in high school may tell you that he's the best they ever saw. The best. How could he be anything else? He was 6-foot-4. He had world-class speed. Who could cover that? He could do whatever he wanted.
People who saw Randy Moss play in college may tell you that he's the best they ever saw. He signed to play for Notre Dame, but that fell apart after a particularly nasty fight that led to Moss serving a little time in jail. He went to play for Florida State, but there was some problem with marijuana. He ended up at Marshall where quarterback Chad Pennington could have thrown a jump ball to Moss on every play completed the pass 75% of the time. As it was, he caught 54 touchdown passes in two years, was the Heisman choice of many of the people who actually saw him play, and the Minnesota Vikings took him with the 21st overall pick because the general managers for most of the first 20 teams did not want the headache.
The headache caught 17 touchdown passes as a rookie, a record, that might last forever.*
*Rice, in his rookie season, caught one touchdown pass.
People who saw Randy Moss that rookie year may tell you that he's the best they ever saw. It wasn't just his performance, which was electrifying and unprecedented. It was that he seemed like something new, something that the league could not handle. Here's the best way to explain: The year after Randy Moss' made his NFL debut, the Vikings arch-rival Green Bay Packers drafted defensive back Antuan Edwards with their first pick. They drafted defensive back Fred Vinson with their second pick. They drafted defensive back Mike McKenzie with their third pick. There was panic in the air. From the day general managers watched Randy Moss play, they decided, all at once: "Damn, we need bigger cornerbacks."
* * *
Matt Stairs hit 265 home runs in his career, which is one heck of a power-hitting career. That's more than Robin Yount hit, for instance. (or, if you want to impress your friends, say it's more than Ty Cobb and Home Run Baker hit COMBINED). He only hit one in the postseason … but it was a memorable one. It was Game 4 of the 2008 National League Championship Series. The Phillies led the series two games to one, but the Dodgers had just blasted them in Game 3 and the score was tied. The series was very much up in the air. Jonathan Broxton came in to pitch. Broxton threw about a million miles per hour then.
Matt Stairs stepped to the plate. It wasn't exactly a Mighty Casey moment. It would not even be right to call this a matchup of "power against power," like announcers often do. Stairs was 40 then. He was not a great fastball hitter anymore. He had hit two home runs for the Phillies after they traded for him at the end of August.
But Stairs was smart, and he knew how to load up, and he knew why he was sent to the plate. He did what he knew how to do: He swung hard, and he swung early. The ball sailed over the right field wall.
"Victory," he said after the game.
* * *
I mentioned a Randy Moss Oakland Raiders game above. I should mentioned it again. I have honestly never seen anything quite like it. In that specific game, Moss never caught a pass, never came close to catching a pass and never seemed especially interested in catching a pass. You might notice that when a player is playing all kinds of lousy, writers usually will use the word "struggling" because it sounds so much kinder. Well, the kind word for Moss through the years was "mercurial." More choice and descriptive words, undoubtedly, were spoken behind closed doors.
I remember years ago, someone asking then Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil if he would rather have a young Jerry Rice or a young Randy Moss. It was at a time when such a question made some sense. Vermeil said Rice, but he had to think about it. And the rest he took Rice, I think, is because of their dispositions. Nobody has ever worked harder than Rice on perfecting routes, designing moves, creating separation, catching passes.
We can't know for certain if it came easier to Moss -- you can't get to be as good as Randy Moss without working at it and working hard. What we do know for certain is he wanted us to BELIEVE it came easy to him. And maybe that's what separated them. If they were forced to be honest, I suspect Jerry Rice would say that he wanted to be remembered for how hard he worked. And Randy Moss would want to be remembered for how great he was. Anyway, that's the impression they gave.
Back to the Raiders game. He didn't catch a ball, didn't run out many routes, and after a while his quarterback Aaron Brooks stopped even looking his way. And I will alway remember how the team reacted to it after the game. I offer those quote for you to enjoy:
Raiders coach Art Shell: "Moss is um, um … the quarterback makes the decision where to throw the ball."
Raiders quarterback Aaron Brooks: "You'll have to ask Randy."
Randy Moss: "I'm not talking."
The very next year, Randy Moss caught an NFL record 23 touchdown pass for New England.
* * *
Bill James made the point that Matt Stairs numbers' -- at least his split numbers -- are essentially the same as Reggie Jackson. It's true, you know:
Matt Stairs: .262/.356/.477
Rocky Colavito: .266/.359/.489
Roger Maris: .260/.345/.476
Reggie Sanders: .267/.343/.487
Dale Murphy: .265/.346/.469
Boog Powell: .266/.361/.462
Kirk Gibson: .268/.352/.463
There are obvious differences, of course, with all these guys. He couldn't throw like Colavito, run like Sanders, field or run like Murphy. He didn't break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record or win an MVP or hit perhaps the most famous home run in World Series history. He also played in a great era for hitters. These go without saying. But the point is that these are excellent players. And Stairs was, when given a chance, an excellent hitter in his own right.
Specific to Reggie Jackson: Reggie played in a much lower run-scoring environment (his career OPS+ of 139 dwarfs Stairs' 117), and the guy may have had famous postseason home run or three -- but the biggest difference is simply that Reggie Jackson's career was twice as long. Reggie was called to the big leagues at 21 and was a full-time player at 22. Stairs was called to the big leagues at 24 and didn't get 500 plate appearances in a season until he was 30.
Reggie had his best year at 23, a fabulous year when he hit 47 homers, led the league in slugging and WAR, and for the rest of his life that was the spectacular image of Reggie Jackson burned in people's minds. When Reggie hit it on the roof in Detroit, when he hit three homers in the World Series game, when he led the league in homers at age 34 and again at 36, the overwhelming feeling was: Ah, yes, there's the real Reggie Jackson.
Stairs was playing in Harrisburg at 23, in Japan not long after that, in Indianapolis and Ottawa and New Britain, and when he came up and hit .298/.386/.582 during his first extended big league shot, then followed it up the next year with 33 doubles, 26 homers and 106 RBIs, and then followed it up the next year with 38 homers and 89 walks, there was still this lingering feeling that it was all fluky and temporary. Reggie hit .237 in 1970, everyone knew he would come back. Stairs hit .227 in 2000, and he never again got 500 plate appearances in a season.
This is not to say that Stairs was mistreated somehow. He certainly never seemed to see it that way. This just so happened to be his lot in life. He liked playing baseball. He got paid almost $19 million to do it. He slugged a lot of home runs. I don't think he would trade it in.
* * *
There is nothing to connect Moss and Stairs except for timing. And, perhaps a question: Which career would you rather have?
That's probably obvious. In the end, Randy Moss was the vastly superior player. The Baseball Reference Fan ELO Rater ranks Matt Stairs the 836th best player ever -- between Bernard Gilkey and Hoot Evers -- and that sounds about right. Moss, meanwhile, is almost inarguably* one of the 10 greatest receivers in NFL history; last year, I ranked him No. 4 behind Rice, Paul Warfield and Don Hutson. Stairs was a role player, a journeyman, a bat for hire. Randy Moss was a legend even while he was playing.
*The rule of Monty Python: Nothing is truly inarguable.
So it's certainly easier to admire Moss. I never saw a wide receiver who timed his leap better, who took more balls away from defensive backs, who controlled his body in the air better (perhaps Lynn Swann on the last one, though Swann's career was so short). He was a beautiful player to watch.
But in the end, doesn't his career feel a bit empty? Lacking? Only Randy Moss knows how much more he could have been, how much harder he could played, how many more yards he could have gained. And perhaps he doesn't know. Perhaps he doesn't care. That's his business. Still, when I think of Randy Moss, I have this muddled picture of a receiver leaping high for a ball that seems way out of reach and of a receiver taking two steps after the snap and just standing there. I see this remarkable statistical record and wonder what happened those two or three years in the middle and why it just ended for him at 32 (Jerry Rice had his best season at 33). I see people walking by his bust in the Hall of Fame* and beginning their sentences with "He could have been …"
*I hear people say that he could have a little wait before going into the Hall of Fame. I understand the reasoning to a point -- Moss didn't always play hard, wasn't always a credit to himself or pro football, and he was a team-crushing player at times through his career -- but I don't buy it. Moss is eighth all time in receptions, fifth in receiving yards, second in receiving touchdowns. So his career numbers are great. His peak is as high as anyone's ever. He's the only player ever to have 1,200 yards receiving each of his first six seasons. He holds the single season record for touchdown receptions. One of the real charms of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that it is grittier and earthier than the Baseball Hall. It is in Canton, which doesn't pretend to be a "village" the way Cooperstown does. Nobody would describe it as "leafy." It is visible from the highway. And it is for the best players without great concern for their integrity, character and sportsmanship (all three are SPECIFICALLY included in the instructions to Baseball Hall of Fame voters(. Baseball has its wonderful Hall which fits its sensibilities. Football has its wonderful Hall too that speaks to football. Put Randy Moss in.
And Matt Stairs? Well, he obviously won't go to the Hall of Fame (well, he should go to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame -- only Larry Walker among Canadians hit more home runs). But he certainly didn't cheat himself. He chased around this game, chased it around the world, and though he struck out a lot, though he was sent packing often, though nothing ever came easy, he kept on swinging. I don't know. That seems a pretty good career.