Athletes have been larger-than-life in a metaphorical sense ever since Babe Ruth inspired the explosion of sports writing in the 1920s. They transitioned from a mere source of entertainment to gladiators, the heroes of Homer(s), mythical beings worthy more of awe than enjoyment.
There have always been big athletes. The aforementioned Babe Ruth was 6’2” and 215 pounds, huge for the 20s. Randy Johnson was 6’10”. Yao Ming was 7’6”, 310 pounds. William “The Refrigerator” Perry was 6’2”, 350 pounds.
With all of that being said, athletes have reached a new level of enormity, both mythically and physically.
Aaron Judge’s name just feels big. That’s an entirely subjective and abstract thought, but I think it’s right. Obviously, the “Judge” surname lends him a sense of authority. But the sheer blunt nature of his name hits you like a bat smacking a ball over 400 feet. It’s weighty.
Judge is 6’7” and 282 pounds of destruction. When he’s standing out in the shallow right field of Yankee Stadium, he still seems to tower over the batter at home plate like the Colossus of Rhodes. And when he’s at the plate himself, the crouched catcher looks akin to Oliver Twist asking for some more. However, he isn’t asking for another bowl of soup, but instead another chance to feel the shockwave of the hammer of Thor connecting with a ball thrown by a now-insignificant man shaking on the mound 60 feet and six inches away. He’s a corporeal thunderclap.
Judge, who is a rookie and just 25 years old, hit the hardest ball ever recorded by Statcast when he launched his second home run of last Friday night at 119.38 mph.
Yes, baseball has had big players before. Hell, Giancarlo Stanton is 6’6”, 245 pounds and currently populates right field for the Marlins, and yet, Judge has made him an afterthought. Even the roided-up behemoths of the early 90s look like run-of-the-mill human beings next to Judge. He simply doesn’t look like he belongs on a baseball diamond, but his .303 batting average, 1.161 OPS and AL-leading 10 home runs tell you he is exactly where he belongs.
There have been plenty of 6’11” basketball players. Kevin Garnett, Bill Walton, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, just to name a few. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is not your regular 6’11” basketball player.
He’s been labelled as one of basketball’s “unicorns,” a beautiful and exceedingly rare talent. That being said, it would also be fair to compare him to a centaur, as he moves so quickly down the court that at times it looks like he has four legs, but then his seven-foot wingspan requires the human upper body. That is an entirely convoluted and bizarre comparison, but that is what happens when someone as unfathomable as Giannis comes on the scene.
The physiology of basketball is supposed to be simple: the big dudes are lumbering post-players who use their size to collect rebounds and bang bodies down low, maybe sometimes stepping out to hit a three in this new era of basketball. Giannis is the next step on the evolutionary chain. He runs the court with the ball with the best of them and handles the ball with the dexterity of a 6’2” point guard. He doesn’t shoot particularly well from three… yet. He’s 22 years old and only just finished up his fourth season, his best yet by far.
He’s like Slenderman with a basketball, bringing certain doom and disrupting electronics (via causing basketball twitter to explode) every time he cuts towards the basket. If Judge is a thunderclap, Giannis is a walking bolt of lightning.
In the same way that the bluntness of Judge’s name inspires visions of vicious acts carried out with a baseball bat, “Giannis Antetokounmpo” can only be the name of someone with the dimensions of “The Freak.” That last name is borderline incomprehensible, making Giannis a first-name player like Kobe and LeBron well before he was deserving of it but at the same time certainly portending things to come.
In running, there are commonly accepted upper limits of what times in races like the 100m or the marathon are attainable. These limits are based on assumptions of how far we can push the human body.
But now I don’t know what to believe. We have Paul Bunyan at the dish for the Yankees and an ent playing point-forward for the Bucks; sports look like they’re on their way to becoming a Pacific Rim sequel. Who’s to say some 6’7” runner from Tazmania or Uzbekistan or the freaking Moon won’t show up and run a sub-two-hour marathon?
What are we supposed to take away from the influx of essentially mythical beings into sports? Are we seeing the next step of human evolution? Is this a sign of things to come, or just a freak anomaly, two generational titans on parallel paths in their respective sports, achieving things with bodies simultaneously sub-optimal and entirely perfect for what they are doing?
I am both enchanted and terrified, but I do know this: If they both keep this up, the big guys are going to be inspired to be more than football players or lumbering forwards. I’m not sure the world is ready.