The Upside of Ugly
Posted By Matt Taibbi On March 18, 2009 @ 6:13 pm In Cover Stories,Sports
Over the winter the Boston Red Sox re-signed their star first baseman Kevin Youkilis — third in league MVP voting — to a four-year, $41 million extension. This was not long after they failed (to great fanfare) to sign another first baseman, free-agent spokesmodel/megastar Mark Teixeira, who was stolen from them by the Yankees for eight years and $180 million. Two comparable players, both big bats with great defense, and yet one costs well more than twice as much annually. Why?
The conventional explanations are that Teixeira has the longer track record and was an unrestricted free agent. The unconventional explanation is that Teixeira is better-looking. He’s your basic laboratory-created, media-ready modern jock: perfect hair, Atlas build, 100-megaton dentistry — the type that grows up slamming nerds against lockers in between classes and/or groping passed-out cheerleaders in his convertible on the way to choir practice. Guys who look like that and hit 30 dingers a season you’ve got to pay $20 million a year for. They sell cereal in their spare time and once a year do uncomfortable photo ops with hairless cancer kids sitting under blankets in their wheelchairs. In sports, they’re the top commodity.
Then there’s Kevin Youkilis. Youk has only three body parts, all hideously oversized: an enormous set of gnomish, bushy forearms; a massive, casaba melon–size white head; and a cauldronlike belly. He has a truly awesome bristle of thick red chin hair that makes his face look like a cross between a vagina and something out of The Hobbit. At the plate he disgustingly gushes sweat by some means previously unknown to science in which the moisture travels upward along his body, racing in a cascade from his balls and armpits up his neck, over his head, and back down over the bill of his helmet to shower the plate. Whereas a guy like Teixeira was born with a swing so gorgeous you want to paint it, Youkilis fighting a middle reliever to a nine-pitch walk looks like a rhinoceros trying to fuck a washing machine.
Which is why he doesn’t sell cereal and why you can sign him relatively cheap. He’s also good for your team. It’s character-building to have guys like this around, and unpleasant and disheartening for other teams to compete against. But in sports there’s good ugly and bad ugly, and knowing which is which is a crucial part of any team’s success. The breakdown:
THE TOO-MANY CHROMOSOMES DIVISION
Club president: Dwayne Schintzius
Few people remember it now, but Schintzius became half of the greatest trade of ugly sports body parts when in 1991 the San Antonio Spurs traded his mullet to the Sacramento Kings for Antoine Carr’s ass. Now, Schintzius was 7-foot-2, which means that by itself his mullet was nearly three feet tall. It was the most awesome sports haircut of all time, easily besting the Jaromir Jagr tornado mullet and the Mike Piazza peroxide job. Schintzius’s career was an important development in the history of sports ugliness because it represented the evolutionary merger of two key concepts: the hick/redneck who gets a million-dollar contract before he outgrows lip fuzz and bad sweaters (i.e., the John Kruk school), and the gland freak who in ancient times would have been chased into the woods by torchbearing villagers but in modern times can ride his mutation to a lucrative pro sports career (the Gheorghe Muresan school). Generally speaking, if you’re only one kind of ugly you can still very much be an asset to a team — witness the Celtics of the ’80s, who built a dynasty around a classic bad-sweater/lip-fuzz redneck in Larry Bird and a prototypical gland freak in Kevin McHale — but being two types of ugly is like having too many chromosomes: It doesn’t work. Chris Kaman’s death-metal/WWF look was the best recent bearer of the Schintzius standard, but then he cut his balding Hulk Hogan tail. Naturally, his scoring average went up.
THE FAT REEKING WHALE DIVISION
Club president: David Wells
With the caveat that fat is not necessarily ugly, not even in sports, there’s a certain kind of fat that separates itself from the pack. C.C. Sabathia, for instance, is fat without being ugly. He is built more like a snowman or the McDonaldland character Grimace, a giant, mostly muscular round form that is pleasing in some mysterious way to the infantile subconscious; he lacks the spindly legs, the floppy, genitals-concealing rubber tire, the sweaty bald head, and the atrocious Hitler mustache to fill out the awful picture. David Wells wasn’t just fat, he was I-don’t-give-a-fuck fat — fat in a way every man knows he could be deep down inside. When you watched him pitch, you looked for mustard stains on his uniform. You could imagine him blasting farts at the third-base gallery as he delivered his curveball, and if you were a kid you didn’t want him to sign your glove because you were afraid he might blow his nose in it. It was disgusting and intimidating. Not many athletes achieve David Wells fatness and live to tell about it. It’s a club that’s pretty much restricted to John Daly, Buster Douglas, Bartolo Colon, and Cowboys guard Nate Newton, who exemplified the species when a Snickers bar flew out of his uniform once during a game. This division is not to be confused with:
THE BIG DONKEY DIVISION
Club president: Keith Traylor
This is your huge, hulking, slow, fee, fi, fo, fum ugly. And it’s not all about fat. In fact, some of the guys in this division, notably Artis Gilmore, weren’t fat at all. For whatever reason, a lot of sports teams try to win by clogging up the court/field with a big, slow-moving donkey, and a large part of what makes this ugly is not so much what the athlete’s face looks like (although in former Dolphin Keith Traylor’s prune-skulled, bug-eyed case, that too was important) but his aesthetic impact on the flow of the game. So for instance, Adam Dunn, baseball’s reigning exemplar of this species, is not only a big donkey, but he strikes out 180 times a year and hits .240. He also has the one telltale physical feature of this class of athlete: the big sagging bullfrog neck that looks like it’s got a couple of liters of vanilla milkshake stored in it. Greg Luzinski, the Reuschel brothers, William (the Refrigerator) Perry, and NBA obesity experiment Robert (Tractor) Traylor were early members of this class.
THE SWAMP THING DIVISION
Club president: Tayshaun Prince
Hands-down the best kind of sports ugly, closely related to the Youkiloid strain, this is your tough, defense-oriented athlete whose appearance is a physical deterrent. On defense you want the guy who looks as though he spent his formative years being beaten with a shovel by his toothless, Lysol-drunk mother, who conceived him by mating with something that crawled out of a swamp with a hard-on and five dollars in its claws. That particular brand of taxonomic orphan is going to spend the rest of its life pissed off at everything that has the right number of eyes and fingers, which is just an ideal mind-set for sports. This list is heavily dominated by black guys with reddish hair or freckles (Tayshaun Prince, Dennis Rodman) as well as by misshapen-headed white dudes with four teeth and beards (Mark Eaton, Jack Lambert). Some people mistakenly include baseball catchers with big ears or monobrows in this group (Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada, Sal Fasano), but that’s actually a whole different species. Joe Frazier was in this group, but you tell him that.
THE METHUSELAH DIVISION
Club president: Robert Parish
There is no other way to say it: The ’80s Celtics were the Rosetta Stone of sports ugly. They had representatives of almost every group covered here, with a couple of pseudo-Schintziuses (Greg Kite and Eric Fernsten), a gland freak (McHale), a bad-sweater hick (Bird), a swamp thing (Dennis Johnson), and a big donkey (Rick Robey). Parish’s specialty was looking prematurely 600 years old, and he is the obvious leader of the Methuselah category, which includes such standouts as Patrick Ewing and Otis Nixon and, perhaps controversially, LeBron James. There’s a very high number of athletes who fit into this category, and the reason is obvious: Many of them grew up as 6-foot, 230-pound third-graders and never downshifted into looking their age. One of the great debates in sports today is whether Portland Trailblazers rookie Greg Oden belongs in this category, or whether he belongs more in the sloe-eyed passes bouncing off his head/big donkey group. In my mind Oden’s career doesn’t take off until he learns to be less clueless slow-moving donkey and more disturbingly prematurely old-looking giganto-jock. It’s likewise impossible to place Deke Mutombo in this group because we don’t know how old he is. He might have been 36 at Georgetown.
THE AREA 51 DIVISION
Club president: Sam Cassell
It’s a very, very small list, but there are a few athletes who make a name for themselves not because they look bad, but because they don’t look like human beings at all. When Sam Cassell first came up with the Rockets, every NBA fan had the same feeling movie audiences had when they watched Tony Shalhoub regrow his exploded head during that pawnshop scene in the first Men in Black: a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Sam I Am is the reigning sports alien right now, winning by a tentacle over intemperate Dominican relief pitcher Julian Tavarez, but he’s had some company over the years — in particular, frightening Ontarian hockey player Mike Ricci and onetime Kansas City A’s pitcher Don Mossi (look him up — it’s worth it). Extragalactic cultures also seem to like to hide their advance Earth scouts on football rosters in the guise of placekickers, with Garo Yepremian being one of the few confirmed ETs.
THE B.C. COMICS DIVISION
Club president: Alexander Ovechkin
Not surprisingly, there are a great many sports cavemen, with most of them in hockey, one of the few sports that will tolerate a person who looks like Alexander Ovechkin as its leading man. He, Adam Oates, and famed goon Mick Vukota are probably your leading NHL troglodytes, but there’s been plenty of cross-pollination into other sports (tarantula-faced Reds pitcher Aaron Harang and foreheadless Patriots lineman Stephen Neal are probably also members of the Unk Unk group). It takes more than a beard to be a true caveman, which is why irritatingly handsome Casanova types pretending to be ugly guys like Johnny Damon don’t get to qualify. Shane Battier, who looks like a model from his very low forehead down, is one of the tougher calls in the history of sports ugly — I think the ruling here is that he is excluded. Ex-Brewers hurler Pete Vuckovich, who scored a cameo in Major League as the player who “leads the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair,” is, on the other hand, a definite yes.
The lesson in all this? When in doubt, pick the ugly player. Guys with vagina beards and holes in their faces are far more likely to play with the right rage than your pretty-boy QB who gets triple-cowgirled by the Swedish bikini team no matter how many interceptions he throws. The disturbing exceptions — Jim Palmer, Oscar de la Hoya, Tom Brady — only prove the rule. Give it up for gross bald guys. Youuuuuk!
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
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