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Thursday, June 16, 2005
Fear factor puts baseball above other sports

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

The first day of the U.S. Open seems an appropriate time to ask a harmless question that surely has no answer but is worth debating: What game is harder to play, baseball or golf? For me -- a hopeless and biased seamhead who has covered baseball for 25 years, and, pathetically, has cut out every box score for the last 20 years -- the answer here is clear: It's baseball.

That is not to denigrate golf. It is an indescribably demanding, difficult and maddening game, one that requires remarkable talent, discipline and guts under pressure. PGA Tour players, all 200 or so of them, deserve our unbroken respect. They are machines. They are robotic in their precision as they swing the same way every time in finishing, at times, a stunning 25 under par in a four-day event. They bear little resemblance to the scratch player who wins his club tournament.

And comparing a tour player to the 12-handicap who thinks he's good by breaking 80 twice a year from the white tees, all the while raking five-foot putts, is like comparing the hoop games of Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.

Roger Clemens
Attempting to hit a pitch thrown by Roger Clemens could possibly be the toughest thing to do in all of sports.

The idea here is to acknowledge the degree of difficulty of baseball. It is golf, with similar skill and concentration, but with tremendous athleticism – running, jumping, throwing, sliding, colliding, etc. – and with significant fear involved. The danger of the game is what separates baseball from golf. Ask NFL players; they want no part of that little white pearl buzzing 100 miles per hour toward the batter's body, which is usually unprotected except for a helmet with an ear flap. Ask NBA players who duke it out in the lane nightly; they want no part of the fear that comes with facing Roger Clemens in a bad mood at dusk.

"It's the great equalizer," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove once said. "It doesn't matter if you're three feet tall and 100 pounds or 6-foot-10 and 300 pounds. The fear is the same."

What's the worst thing that can happen to you in golf? You can lose. "What's the worst thing Michael Jordan can do to you? Dunk on you," former infielder Jeff Huson once said. "What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you."

It is impossibly hard to hit a 3-iron from 230 yards out within 10 feet of the hole, which PGA Tour players do routinely. But nothing is harder in professional sports than hitting a baseball that is thrown 97 mph. Imagine trying to hit that 3-iron as someone is throwing a rock-hard baseball, at a speed that is incomprehensible to the average person, in your direction.

And not only does a baseball player get right back in the box after nearly having his face disfigured, but many of those who do get hit in the head find a way to block it out and keep playing. Kevin Seitzer got hit in the face twice in his 12-year career. The second time, in 1995, he was hit between the temple and eye socket. "It was like," he said several years later, "having my faced crushed by a bowling ball – a bowling ball going 90 miles per hour."

Hitting a 100-yard wedge to a spot where you will almost never three-putt, and will have as many one-putts as two-putts, is accuracy beyond belief. But imagine, on the follow-through of that wedge shot, that you have to field a baseball that is traveling well over 100 mph. Catching a baseball is a task immensely underrated in its degree of difficulty – just ask any third baseman who has played even with the bag with Vladimir Guerrero at the plate and a soft-throwing left-hander on the mound. Ron Santo, a former Cubs great who won five Gold Gloves at third base, tells the story of how he was knocked unconscious – he woke up in the hospital – after being hit in the stomach by a one-hop grounder off the bat of Frank Howard.

What's the worst thing Michael Jordan can do to you? Dunk on you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you.
Former baseball player Jeff Huson

Putting on a green as hard as a bowling lane and equally tricky is to be admired completely. But imagine, in the middle of the putting stroke, that a 225-pound man you can't see coming is moving at a high rate of speed and is barreling in at your knees – and he's wearing metal spikes. That's what middle infielders face every day. As for the hit Braves catcher Johnny Estrada took recently from Darin Erstad, well, that's not happening on the back nine.

I'm not suggesting it's easier to get to the PGA Tour than it is to get to the major leagues. I'm not suggesting that it's easier to making a living as a tour player than as a big-league player. All I'm suggesting is that, given the physical nature, the skill and athleticism required, plus the fear factor, there are more elements involved in playing baseball than golf. All I'm suggesting is that fewer baseball players would look out of place playing in a PGA event than tour players would look playing in a major-league baseball game.

Obviously, John Smoltz has played a lot more golf than Tiger Woods has played baseball, but I've seen Smoltz hit a golf ball and I've seen Tiger try to hit a baseball, and the difference is clear.

Baseball and golf are really hard to play. Baseball is just harder.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.