Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wilson vs. Blaylock: History's Greatest Mookie?

"Winner" of the 2011 Red Smith Award for Contributions to Sports Journalism

It was a cool February morning in Bamberg, South Carolina. The year is 1956, and a healthy baby boy named William Hayward Wilson is born at a nearby hospital. By the time the boy became a teenager he was one of the top-rated prep baseball players in the Palmetto State, and a few years later he was a standout center fielder at the University of South Carolina. Impressing scouts with his speed and switch-hitting, though not necessarily for his size (5'10", 170 lbs.) or power, he was drafted in the second round of the 1977 draft by the New York Mets.

Fast forward eleven years to another hospital, the Baylor Medical Center in Garland, Texas. It was at this hospital that Daron Oshay Blaylock was brought into the world. A natural push-and-pass point guard and a strong defensive stopper, the young Blaylock was the captain of the Garland High School basketball team. After earning NCJAA All-American honors at Midland College in 1987 he transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he and Stacey King carried the Sooners to the 1988 NCAA Championship game. This impressed the New Jersey Nets' scouts to the extent that they chose him as the 12th overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft.

So what do these two highly disparate professional athletes have in common? As a young child, William had great difficultly saying "milk," often emphasizing a "moo" sound when he asked for a glass of two percent. When Daron was about ten years old, his grandmother went to see Star Wars and commented that her taller-than-average grandson "looked like the mookie," misremembering the actual name of Chewbacca's species. Oddly enough, both nicknames stuck.

Granted, if there was a Mookie Copernicus or a Mookie Descartes or even a Mookie Hitler, there'd be no point in arguing this. Alas, this curious nickname is shared by exactly two public figures, both respected ex-athletes in the highest professional level of their respective sports. A title such as Mookie does not befit an astronomer, a mathematician, or a Nazi. So the question lingers: who is history's greatest Mookie?

I begin this highly intestinal debate by contrasting the Mookies. Where Wilson played in the major leagues predominately in the 1980s, Blaylock was an NBA fixture in the '90s and early 2000s. Their professional careers overlapped by a little over two years, thus ensuring dozens upon dozens of sports fans to be confused if anyone were to ask "hey, did you see Mookie play last night?" On top of that, Blaylock was the more dominant athlete; chosen to play in the 1994 NBA All-Star Game, he was a defensive workhorse and who ranks 12th on the all-time steals list. Wilson proved to be an average talent but a fan favorite, a fearless stolen base threat to compensate for only hitting 67 home runs and 438 RBI in his twelve years in the majors. Plus, Blaylock is three inches taller and ten pounds heavier than his fellow Mookie, so guess who'd clearly win in a fistfight.

If you were to debate the purpose and necessity of a nickname like Mookie, than Wilson would have the edge. There already was a Willie Wilson playing for the Kansas City Royals in the same time period, two southerners with the same baptismal name at the same position, so the alternate moniker wiped out any and all potential confusion. On the other hand, there are no other players in NBA history by the surname of Blaylock, so at least that Mookie had a distinct edge.

Another point to consider is the collective cultural impact of the Mookies. It is well-known trivia that in the early '90s, a five-piece grunge-rock band based in Seattle, Washington had considered naming themselves Mookie Blaylock, even though he never suited up for the Supersonics. When the band couldn't get clearance from the NBA, they settled upon their second choice, Pearl Jam. (In turn, PJ's debut album Ten is reference to Blaylock's jersey number with the Nets.)

Wilson's contribution to pop culture, however is an actual achievement that had far-reaching ramifications. His ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series --the easy out that infamously slipped through Bill Buckner's legs-- led the Mets to a shocking rally and the second title in team history. On the flip side, the gaffe ultimately cost the Red Sox their first championship in seven decades and extended their drought by almost a generation. Both Wilson and Buckner became pariahs in the city of Boston.

Upon analyzing and breaking down the qualities of both Mookies, I cannot convince myself to choose just one. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Blaylock have too many intangibles to make this a sure-shot decision. In the end, maybe this historical debate has not seen its conclusion written yet. A third Mookie of consequence, Mookie Jones is a standout forward for the Syracuse Orange who might be a high pick in the 2012 or 2013 NBA Draft. Unlike the other two, Mookie is his birth name. It must've been fate that his parents are both Mets fans.

Next week: the year in music, 1976.

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