As athletes get bigger, they look less and less like us

ByHoward Bryant ESPN logo
Monday, April 27, 2015

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PIECE BY PIECE, they cease being one of us. Money first created an impenetrable distance between the players and the public, and rightfully. In the pre-free-agent days ending in the mid-1970s, when players were exploited and discarded by management, baseball's minimum salary was $16,000, just a few thousand dollars more than the median American household. Today, as the American wage stagnates at roughly $52,000 annually, baseball's minimum salary is now $507,500, and the average salary is $4 million.

Willie Mays playing stickball with the kids on Harlem streets, Henry Aaron's kids going to public schools -- these are stories more than half a century old, Norman Rockwell quaint. Athletes, like the movie stars whose wages they've long sought to emulate, are part of the gilded class, and they're never coming back.

Yet pieces of the everyman fantasy hung on, particularly in sports such as tennis and baseball. An average-sized person with world-class hunger and ability could imagine playing in the big leagues. Dustin Pedroia and Jimmy Rollins offered hope that ballplayers were still like us.

But now, that part of the fantasy is disappearing too.

The old adage that too much height was bad for pitchers, bad for mechanics, bad for arm slots, has given way to the belief that size is essential for power and success. The average height of an American male is 5-foot-10, yet 14 MLB teams don't have a pitcher under 6 feet tall. The Yankees have one pitcher under 6-2 and boast five pitchers at least 6-7. The Cardinals have eight pitchers 6-4 or taller. Kansas City is the only team in baseball with five pitchers 6 feet or under.

"When I first came up in 2001, I used to tower over everybody," says 6-7, 285-pound CC Sabathia. "But look around this room, at Dellin [Betances, 6-8], Chris [Martin, 6-8], Andrew [Miller, 6-7], it's unbelievable."

Tennis is undergoing a similar transformation toward superathletes. In May 1990, 12 of the ATP's top 20 players were 6 feet or under; only one, Andres Gomez, was at least 6-4. Today, six of the top 20 are 6 feet or under, with six 6-4 or taller. Jimmy Connors, the all-time men's leader with 109 singles titles, was 5-10; John McEnroe was 5-11. Among today's players, John Isner is 6-10, Ivo Karlovic is 6-11 and Kevin Anderson and Jerzy Janowicz are 6-8. Only two active players 6 feet or smaller, Lleyton Hewitt and Stan Wawrinka, have won grand slam titles.

As a junior, Donald Young was considered the Next Big Thing in American tennis, and at 16, he became the youngest World Junior No. 1 in history. His pro struggles are well-documented, but the most under-discussed part of his saga is that he is barely 6 feet in a game in which McEnroe-style touch is being replaced by power. "These guys are so big you have to combat it with speed, quickness, other things," Young says. "Against some guys, you might only get one chance on their serve."

Sports are now less about drive, spirit and determination and are more the exclusive province of an exceptional athletic gene pool. Numerous theories abound, but the conventional wisdom is this: The rigors of the game, coupled with the increase in technology -- better racket strings and frames, bats, helmets, training equipment and injury-tracking data -- have led to the belief that only the bigger, faster and stronger can compete in a bigger-faster-stronger world. Nobody bets on heart alone.

Maybe there will always be room for the rare skills of a 5-11 Pedro Martinez, but even those days are dwindling.

"You better be special to not get dismissed outright," says David Cone, a 6-1 right-hander who won 194 games and five World Series titles over a 17-year career. "You always had to be special if you weren't a big guy, but today you can pretty much guarantee it's going to be much, much harder. With such an emphasis on power, I don't see that changing either."

Anecdotally, some scouts believe bigger players take longer to recover from injury, but that is just a theory. Today, executives gamble on size, which in turn will determine who gets jobs and who gets an opportunity. The inevitable result is that the distance between athletes and fans will only continue to grow too.