Some lefties do all right

A breed apart, they use it to their advantage in sports

November 16, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

As a left-handed quarterback of distinction, Michael Vick, whose Atlanta Falcons face the Ravens on Sunday, is hardly heir to a long legacy.

Ken Stabler led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl title in January 1977. Steve Young did the same for the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 and is the only southpaw quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Boomer Esiason came close to a Super Bowl win for the Cincinnati Bengals. But that's it.

Maybe the paucity isn't shocking considering that lefties make up about 11 percent of the U.S. population.

Apparently, if you want to become a conqueror, it's good to be left-handed. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were. But in most other fields, it's not a big advantage.

Lefties have been stigmatized throughout history. The word sinister is derived from sinistra, the Latin word for left. Some scientists argue that being left-handed is the result of trauma at birth. Studies have shown that left-handers are more likely to be alcoholic and schizophrenic and die younger. Communists came from the extreme political left. Even dear old Ned Flanders was subject to scorn when he opened a store for left-handers on The Simpsons.

At least in sport, lefties can wipe away this cultural bias. In baseball and tennis, left-handers rule. In football, basketball and golf, not as much.

It's especially noticeable in baseball. Lefty sluggers and southpaw aces are the major league equivalent of beluga caviar. Check out the greatest hitters. From Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Barry Bonds, the majority swung from the left side.

Actually, baseball offers a fascinating cost-benefit profile for lefties. On the one hand, fewer jobs are available to them, because they can only play five of the nine positions on the diamond. They don't play catcher, second base, shortstop and third base because they'd have to field the ball, turn and then throw, making even an easy play difficult. On the other hand, they're often better qualified to do the five remaining jobs.

"Left-handers get their revenge as batters," wrote George Will in his book Men at Work. "At the plate, they stand a step closer to first and the momentum of their swing causes them to uncoil moving toward first. As a result, the average left-hander among today's major leaguers gets there a second faster than the average right-hander. ... Another advantage for today's left-handed hitter is that he faces right-handed pitching about two-thirds of the time, so most of the breaking pitches he sees move in toward his power."

Baseball historian Bill James published one of the first comprehensive studies of the platoon advantage in 1988 and found that the century-old supposition that righties hit better against lefties and vice versa was spot on. But James' research showed something else. Righties hit a tremendous .281 against left-handed pitching. But lefties hit an even more spectacular .292 against right-handed pitching. That suggested that even an average lefty facing a right-hander was substantially better than most right-handers in the same spot.

Because left-handed hitters abuse righties so, the left-handed pitchers who torment them are all the more valuable.

Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Warren Spahn are just the cream of a deep crop of great southpaw pitchers. Beyond these superstars lie a whole other class of pitchers who couldn't break an egg with their fastballs but hang around forever because they throw strikes and are left-handed.

Tommy John, who won 164 games throwing junk after his elbow was reconstructed, might be the patriarch. But current work-horses Jamie Moyer and Kenny Rogers are right there. Former Oriole Jesse Orosco lasted until he was 46 years old, because he could always come in at a moment's notice and torment any left-handed hitter.

Serving up tennis aces

Just as the physics of baseball seem to favor lefties, the dimensions of a tennis court aid them as well. Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova are a few of the southpaw all-timers.

McEnroe worked behind a serve that he could send slicing off the court. This forced opponents to stretch far to their weaker backhand sides. McEnroe then picked off their weak returns with an unmatched array of volleys.

Many tennis lovers still regard him as the most artful player ever.

Southpaws also hold a time-honored place in boxing, but not necessarily as greats of the sport. Instead, they represent an awkward crucible on which "orthodox" fighters test themselves. The most famous boxing southpaw isn't even a real fighter. His name is Rocky and he'll be the focus of a sixth movie next month. But just because he was champ, don't think Mr. Balboa avoided those hang-ups about lefties.

"Left-handed fighters they're the worst," his trainer, Mick, told him in Rocky II. "They try to come in there with that big left. Right's no damn good. They ought to outlaw southpaws!"

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