You take the stars. I'll take the knockaround guys, the ones who show up in the agate type but never in the headline, the names you can't quite put a face to, the ones who know that aching gap between being one of the best and being the best of the best.
I'll take Martin Truex Jr.
Truex won the NASCAR race at Sonoma on Sunday. It was his second win in the Sprint Cup series, NASCAR's highest level. His first was in June 2007. He went 218 races between wins. That's the biggest gap between a driver's first two wins in NASCAR history. (Bill Elliott went winless in 226 races between 1994 and 2001, but he had already won 40 times by then.)
I'll take Robert Gamez. Gamez won his first official start on the PGA Tour in 1990. Two months later, he holed out from the fairway to beat Greg Norman by one shot at Bay Hill. He was so hot, People Magazine did a feature on him. He was runner-up a couple of times after that. He lost a playoff to Fred Couples. He started missing cuts. He was laid up from a car accident. He lost his Tour card for a while. Finally, at the Valero Texas Open in 2005, he won again. He went 15 years and six months between wins -- the longest gap in Tour history.
I'll take Pete Walker. Walker, now the Blue Jays' pitching coach, pitched the 11th inning to get the win for the Mets over the Braves in the last game of the 1995 season. He spent most of the next six years in the minors. Toronto traded for him, made him a starter, and in June 2002 he pitched five innings of one-run ball to get the win over Tampa Bay. He went almost seven full seasons between wins.
I don't love these guys because they're scrappy or gritty or because they outwork everybody else. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. The whole idea that the most talented athletes don't work hard is a myth. All you had to do was watch LeBron James in this year's NBA Playoffs. For years he couldn't go to his left, and this year he beat Indiana with a left-handed layup at the horn. For years he couldn't consistently make jumpers, and this year he sealed Game 7 against the Spurs with a 19-footer in the last minute. He put thousands of hours into preparing himself for those moments. Who's the grittiest of the gritty? David Eckstein? LeBron worked at least as hard as David Eckstein did.
But now LeBron has been a champion two years in a row. What if you get there once and can't ever seem to get back? What if you're better than 99.9 percent of the world at what you do, but you're locked out of that final one-tenth?
That's why I admire the ones who stick it out. It's a job, of course, and even the athletes who don't win every week make a good living -- Gamez has made more than $8 million on the PGA Tour. In some sports, if your skill level is high enough, you can coast your way to a nice life. It's that way in a lot of other jobs, too. Maybe that's why I like the guys who refuse to coast. They're like the rest of us. They try harder than they have to because they want to be something better than they are.
Martin Truex Jr. races for Michael Waltrip's team, which is perfect. Waltrip went 0-for-462 -- that's 16 NASCAR seasons -- before he won the 2001 Daytona 500. He had about 30 minutes to celebrate before the news broke that Dale Earnhardt had died after hitting the wall on the last lap. Waltrip won just three more times in his career. But he started 772 races in NASCAR's top league. That's the important number. That's how many times he showed up.
Truex is a really good driver. He made the top 10 seven times in 16 races this season. He's 10th in points for the Chase. But it had been so long since he had won. Truex's luck had been so poor that when he took the lead near the end in Sonoma, according to his girlfiend, Truex was just "waiting for an asteroid to fall out of the sky" and hit his car.
But he took the checkered flag. And then he got choked up in the winner's circle. "There's been days when I was like, 'This sucks. This isn't fun anymore,'" Truex said. "But the past couple years have just been great. ... We're just really starting to come into our own."
It takes talent and work to keep making the field. It takes something else to make it all the way back. Faith, optimism, pure hard-headedness - call it what you want. It is a beautiful and powerful thing. And every so often, like on a summer Sunday on a racetrack in wine country, it is rewarded.
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