They are today’s elite athletes, the finest at what they do. The only thing bigger than their talent is their paycheck.

Each sport has its own flock of superstars who can dominate like few others. Modern day sports heroes such as baseball’s Ken Griffey Jr., basketball’s Vince Carter and football’s Peyton Manning are as big as the games they play.

They are adored by fans and treated like royalty by management. All have posted superb numbers in their careers and own an impressive legion of all-star appearances, awards and other honors.

But a dark cloud hovers over the careers of these particular stars, and seems to undermine all of their personal achievements.

The universal concept of all team sports essentially revolves around one idea ? winning. While these players certainly shine in the box scores, they can’t seem to get it right in the standings.

For years, Griffey was the pride of the Seattle Mariners. He had youth, charisma, swagger and the bat and glove to back it all up. The kid with the backwards hat had it all. And then he signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

Critics predicted the Mariners would sink to the bottom of the American League West standings without their star slugger. Seattle did anything but, bursting into the 2000 postseason and pushing the Yankees to game six of the AL Championship Series.

Griffey meanwhile endured a rough inaugural season in Cincinnati, going through a minor slump at the plate and watching his old teammates excel in the playoffs on TV.

Just a year later, Seattle’s other superstar, shortstop Alex Rodriquez, bolted for the big bucks in Texas. Again, everyone wrote off the Mariners and again, the Mariners proved them wrong. Seattle won an AL-record 116 games and sent a team-record eight players to the All-Star game.

Led by top-notch pitching and AL MVP Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle overcame all odds to dominate without its departed stars. A-Rod and the Rangers finished the season a whopping 43 games behind Seattle, and dead last in the AL West.

In the NBA, Toronto’s Vince Carter is revered as one of the most explosive offensive players the league has to offer. Inflated scoring averages and a 45-inch vertical have converted Carter into a perennial all-star and the Raptors’ “franchise player.”

But a closer look at this year tells a different story. Toronto was in the midst of a horrid 1-17 stretch when a knee injury sidelined Carter for the year on March 26.

With their playoff hopes dwindling, the Raptors reeled off nine wins in a row, and 11 of the next 12 games. Thanks to lesser-known players like center Keon Clark and forwards Mo Peterson and Antonio Davis stepping up in Carter’s absence, Toronto is in the playoffs.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning fits this dubious bill as well. While he has seen both good days (playoff appearances in 1998 and ’99) and bad (6-10 record last season) in the NFL, Manning really experienced some tough luck in college.

During his four-year career at Tennessee, Manning was a deity on campus. The school’s leader in virtually every significant quarterback category, Manning won a truckload of awards at UT, including All-American honors three times.

But with all the accolades that Manning accumulated over the years, he could never get his team over the hump and bring home a national title. It was not until the year after he graduated that the Vols, led by former backup Tee Martin, capped off an undefeated season with a win in the championship game.

Without their superstars in the lineup, what allowed the Mariners, Raptors and Volunteers to blow everyone away and play out of their jocks? No one knows for sure ? but the following may play a role.

When a team relies too heavily on one player, team chemistry often suffers. While few dare to admit it publicly, athletes get frustrated when a single teammate tries to do too much. Often it is the player with the most fame and largest salary that is at the root of this problem.

Some of the most talented players are also the most difficult characters in the locker room. As tensions and hidden agendas develop, it becomes nearly impossible for players to come together as a team and focus on winning.

Another factor that impacts winning after a star falls is the rise of others in his place. When players whose roles were more modest in the past are asked to fill in for a missing leader, they are eager and capable of taking on such a responsibility. They work hard all year in practice for their one shot and don’t disappoint when they get it.

Lastly, maybe we expect too much from our superstars. Our evaluation of their talent may be misguided. Singular attributes of a player do not replace team objectives.

While the long bomb, the 3-pointer or the double off the wall are impressive, it may be more productive to hand-off to chew up the clock, or drive the lane to pick up a foul or take a pitch to allow a runner to advance. This is where the thin line between sports success and SportsCenter exists.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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