If J.J. Watt was an actor, who would he be?
What about James Harden? What if he was a musician?
I don’t know if anybody really thinks about that sort of thing, but I do. Or at least I did yesterday. In the middle of a Twitter war with Cody Stoots about how (a) Will Ferrell is Tim Tebow: dominant on the lower level (college, SNL), but on the big stage, outside of one or two moments (six-game winning streak, Anchorman and Step Brothers), the skill set never translated, leaving us with hype and truthers, and (b) if you consider the careers of Ferrell and, say, Adam Sandler, they’re actually pretty comparable. And yet, one is loved, the other loathed. Go figure.
Either way, the creative juices were churning. What if we were to take all the top sports personalities here in the city, and put their past, present and future in terms of the career arcs actors, musicians, and comedians? What would that look like? And would it help steer the conversation about what we have seen and will see? Who knows. Maybe I even get punched in the face by Brian Cushing for saying he’s one of the guys from that really bad Daredevil movie. Or stomped out by 15 guys for saying that Harden, while I love his work, is kind of a carbon copy of one of the least likable artists on the planet. Guess we’ll have to see.
So, since I happened to think of it, and to lighten the mood, here goes.
Houston coaches and athletes as Hollywood celebrities. Part Three.
Jeff Luhnow — Elon Musk
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Dared to dream. Written off as a crazy person. But in the end, had the last laugh. When Elon Musk first floated his plans to invent the first-ever reusable rocket, people thought he was huffing. Creating a vessel that could survive launch, make it through the Earth’s atmosphere and escape the planet’s gravitational pull was already arguably the most remarkable feat in engineering history. Something that can do all that, return home and then do it again? Go home. You’re drunk. Even for the guy who made battery powered cars cool (Tesla Motors) and made electronic payment as easy as good old fashioned cash (Pay Pal). Musk himself has even admitted, he never really thought he’d be able to pull it off. Especially after four failed attempts. But his visions of grandeur persisted, and were finally validated in April, when SpaceX landed its first ever reusable ship. Suck it, Internet snark. You could say much of the same about Jeff Luhnow. On paper, tanking makes all the sense in the world. Forget contrarian. It’s the smart move. The move, even. If you’ve got an average company with average employees, your only shot at getting better is firing everybody and starting over. Lose a lot of games, get a lot of high draft picks, make the right selections and WORLD SERIES, HERE WE COME!!! But as history and Sam Hinkie will tell you, it’s not that easy. Even if that’s the only way you have a chance, it still takes a remarkable plan with remarkable execution to pull it off. It didn’t always go smoothly for Luhnow. George Springer (No. 11 overall in 2011) and Carlos Correa (No. 1, 2012) were dream scenarios. But Mark Appel (No. 1, 2013) and Brady Aiken (No. 1, 2014)? Not so much. My first sports talk radio show in Houston was the week the Aiken negotiations unraveled. My co-host at the time — doesn’t really matter who it was, but trust me, he’s credible — delivered the following proclamation: “Houston’s GMs are the worst in pro sports!”, with Luhnow being the white-hot center of his piping-hot take. But it turns out, Lunow was right about Aiken. His elbow blew up later that year (as Luhnow and the medical staff feared it would) and he ended up falling to the Twins in the middle of the first round of the following draft, in part because, with the way the joint was built, there was no guarantee that he’d ever recover. That’s pretty much how it’s been for most of Luhnow’s tenure: a tall glass of I Told You So. Talent evaluation. Navigating the draft. Manipulating slotting rules. Player development. Even if Alex Bregman hasn’t gotten a hit yet (which, relax, it took Craig Biggio four games to get his first big league hit, too), the poise he’s shown in his first two games are a testament to the job Luhnow and his staff have done with (a) picking the right players and (b) grooming them the right way. Ask yourself: outside of drafting Appel (which, is anyone perfect?), what’s Luhnow really screwed up? Even with Jon Singleton — I argue, process over results. Maybe Singleton didn’t work out, but $10 million over five years is pocket lint for (what had better damned be) owner Jim Crane’s payroll budget, and if Singleton had become what he was supposed to, he’d immediately be the best value buy in Major League Baseball. It’s been a long wait, and Astros fans — who, let’s remember, couldn’t even watch the team on television for a solid two-and-a-half years — held up admirably. But for a guy who was mocked thoroughly for his big, bold move, in the end, Luhnow came out on top. As will the team he’s built. 2017. World Series champs. Calling my shot. For the second time this series.
A.J. Hinch — Ben Affleck
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Struggled in their first crack at the business. But after a role change, found their true calling. Yes, Ben Affleck’s performance as Chuckie Sullivan in Good Will Hunting was timeless. I mean, this monologue — is it just me, or is it allergy season in Houston? But even if he was stellar there, and in bit roles in comedies, Affleck’s early acting career was “meh” at best. In fact, his IMDB page doesn’t even default to his credits as an actor. It goes straight to his credits as a producer. And that’s where Affleck really found himself, on the other side of the camera. To think, the same guy who did Daredevil, Gigli and Jersey Girl would one day be responsible for Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo, all of which he directed. It’s literally the differen ce between Razzies and Oscars. How? I don’t know what it was, whether it was his failings as an actor or whether it was just what he was meant to be, and hadn’t figured it out yet. But whatever the case, Affleck’s gotten it together, and it’s spectacular. You could argue it’s even enhanced his acting. Ask yourself: Is Affleck as good in Gone Girl if he never climbs in the director’s chair? I say no. Likewise, A.J. Hinch’s brilliance as a manager was likely born from his failings as a general manager. We forget, Hinch’s first go-round was, like Affleck’s, pretty thoroughly average. He took over the Diamondbacks farm system in 2005 — he was their manager of minor league operations — and was in 2006 named one of Baseball America‘s “10 to watch” over the next 10 years for how he projected as a future GM. But it never materialized. A few years after becoming Arizona’s director of player development in 2006, he was reassigned to be the club’s manager, and ultimately fired in 2010. He later caught on in San Diego, where he eventually rose to assistant GM and vice president baseball operations. But in 2014, after four years there, he was again let go. Let’s reflect on that for a minute. Highly touted as a personnel guy. Yet gets two stints in two organizations without a lot of expectations or a big market fan base to appease, and Hinch couldn’t hack it. Pretty telling. But then, Luhnow and the Astros came calling. After intense friction with his manager at the time, Bo Porter, Luhnow was looking for someone young enough to relate to players, but old enough to be credible. Not to mention someone open-minded enough to embrace his new-age baseball philosophies and worldview. Which pretty much sums up Hinch. He wasn’t just a good hire, he was the hire. Between his time in the dugout with the Diamondbacks in 2009 and 2010, and his time in various front offices, Hinch could see the game through the eyes of a player (which he was, by the way, from 1998 to 2004), manager and general manager. Like he had internalized the perspective of everyone in a baseball operation enough to know how they tick, and what strings to pull to get the most out of them. Who better to bring Luhnow’s vision to life? Luhnow might be one of the best GMs in baseball (I’d rank them, Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, Brian Sabean and Andrew Feldman of the A’s, Cubs, Giants and Dodgers, followed by Luhnow), but Hinch is absolutely on his way to becoming one of the best skippers in the sport too. And to think, guy who could very well be the next Joe Maddon started out his career as the Jon Singleton of GMs. Go figure.
Carlos Correa — Chris Evans
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Looks like a star. Performs like a star. But so quiet and so grounded — it makes you wonder if he really cares all that much about being a star. All you need to know about Chris Evans’ acting chops: he successfully went from this guy in Not Another Teen Movie to the centerpiece of two of the highest grossing franchises in cinema history, Captain America and Avengers. (If you think that’s one in the same, it’s not. Go look at the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. Excellent initially. But mess with the mix, adding a few stars and taking away few in the second and third movies, and even the characters from the original all of a sudden seem lost. What started as maybe the best guy movie ever quickly became a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about making a sequel. Easily could’ve happened with Avengers. Characters who were good in roles by themselves coming completely undone as part of an ensemble). That, friends, is a feat. People in Hollywood consider him, in terms of pure talent, one of the best of his generation. But even if Evans could have the spotlight, and whore himself out there for daytime TV and magazines and advertisers, he doesn’t really care enough to actually do it. Evans talked about it in a recent Rolling Stone article — promoting a movie, the most self-indulgent part of being an actor, is his least favorite part. Not because, like Connor McGregor, he just can’t be bothered to do it. Evans just doesn’t need the attention. He’d much rather spend time with family, friends, books. You know, real life. Not that Hollywood life that so many find so appealing. To put it simply: he’s an artist. Everything else is noise. Carlos Correa feels like very much the same guy. Two seasons in, and at 21 years old, not only is Correa arguably the best shortstop on the planet, he’s also one of the best baseball players on the planet and, yes, projects like a Hall of Famer. But when you watch him, you don’t see the rockstar personality that his rockstar ability would enable. He doesn’t peacock. He doesn’t bat flip. He doesn’t seek out the camera at every turn. Part of that’s a baseball thing, and a function of the game’s hallowed Unwritten Rules. But for a guy who his whole life has known nothing but being exceptionally good at a professional sport, it’s remarkable how uninterested Correa seems with the fruits of that success. It’s not that he’s afraid of the spotlight, either. Quite the opposite. He’s great in radio interviews. He’s one of the most marketable players in the sport. In fact, he’s arguably the game’s strongest advocate of personality. But while Bryce Harper is off being a fashionista, Correa is off being a normal dude. So far as we know, anyway. Who knows. Maybe he’s the next Derek Jeter, off the field. He’s already better on the field.
Jose Altuve — Miles Teller
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One quality performance after another, to the point where, how aren’t they considered one of the best in their field? Oh, that’s right. Something really dumb and superficial. Miles Teller has been putting out gems for years now. Whiplash is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. (It’s also usurped Social Network as my go-to movie for inspiration. Those two movies do to me what Kobe Bryant’s his final game did to J.J. Watt, apparently. My first time seeing each movie, I immediately prepared and recorded an hour of sports talk radio after. No, that’s not normal behavior. But I guess that’s why they call them movies, right? As in, “they move us”? Either way…). The Spectacular Now, the movie that was so good it arguably launched co-star Shailene Woodley into orbit, is much of the same. Gives you All The Feels. And yet, how many people would know who I’m talking about if not for the photo? Not many. In fact, of the people who do know him, most know him as, “the other guy in That Akward Moment. Not Zac Efron or Michael B. Jordan, but the other guy, right?” Why? It’s because of the way he talks. Teller’s delivery — it’s just not what you normally get from a top actor. Tom Hanks gives you powerful monologues. Tom Cruise, too. They project. Enunciate. Intonate. Hell, Christian Bale values speech so much, he comes up with a different voice for every character he does. That’s how much it can matter. Teller, on the other hand, he sounds like a part-time lifeguard in South Beach. Or Zack Mettenberger. Not a big deal if you’re a comedian. But if you’re trying to be one of the best actors out there, it’s probably best that you don’t sound like Jonah Hill. That’s what’s happened with Jose Altuve. If you look at the numbers, he’s objectively one of the best players in baseball since he entered the league in 2011. Four all star games in six seasons. Two batting titles, and on pace for his third. Second best batting average over the span, to Miguel Cabrera, who is the best natrual hitter of our time. Sudden power stroke that’s so good, “He must be on steroids!” But how many people outside of Houston really consider Altuve an elite player? Not “good.” Not “makes the most of what he’s working with.” I mean “elite.” How many people really think of him that way? Not many. That’s because of his height. Being 5’5 — it’ll get you run on SportsCenter. But because that becomes such a central part of the narrative, it’s like it makes you a novelty act. Instead of being, “real MVP candidate,” Altuve is simply “that short guy.” Just kills his reputation. The good news for both is, it’ll soon be impossible to deny their brilliance. Teller is set to come out with two movies, War Dogs (about two twentysomething arms dealers) and Bleed For This (the true story of boxing contender Vinny Pazienza, and his road back from a nearly fatal broken neck). Altuve this season could very well win the MVP, and with the way baseball’s strike zone is shrinking, is the safest bet on the current roster to continue his current pace — which, by the way, makes him 1/1A with Craig Biggio as the best player in franchise history. “That short guy.” The hell outta here…
George Springer — Tom Hardy
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More co-star than star. But however good they are on-camera, their biggest contributions might be off-camera. Yes, Tom Hardy is masterful. The Revenant. Increption. Pretty much every Leonardo DiCaprio movie ever. Plus, Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max — you get the deal. Hardy’s name might not be on the marquee, but 20 minutes into every movie he’s in, you realize, it’s his movie. But however good he is as an actor, where Hardy really makes his mark is on set, where he helps diffuse the intense pressure brought on by big production budgets and even bigger egos. Consider the set The Revenant. Extreme conditions. Miserable, blistering cold. Leo’s chasing an Oscar. Director Alejando Iñárritu’s playing perfectionist. Not exactly a night at Dave & Buster’s. And yet, who kept it all together? Hardy, who, to give you an example, at one point wrestled Iñárritu to the ground, saying, “We should cuddle.” Unconventional, but hilarious. That’s kind of what George Springer has been for the Astros. Really good with his bat. Really good in the field. Should have been an All-Star this season. But what he’ll be remembered for in the ESPN’s 30 for 30 about the run they’re about to make the next few years? Club Astro. Fans resent the coverage it’s gotten, and when things weren’t going well the first six weeks of the season, made that the object of their ire. Because, you know, Twitter. But the reality is, it’s absolutely pivotal to what they’ve done, and what they’ll continue to do. Think about baseball. 162 games. 3, 3 1/2 hour games. A friend of mine in the media once put it this way — MLB pregame (warm ups, batting practice, hanging out in the clubhouse) is longer than NBA games. That’s how much down time there is in the sport. Lot of time to think. Sulk. Get into your own head. Unravel. However hokey it is, the impact of the vibe that Springer has created can’t be understated. Think about what the Astros have endured this season. Going from one of the worst teams in MLB, to the absolute hottest. Watching Dallas Keuchel go from Cy Young winner, to not even a major league pitcher, to himself again. Carlos Gomez, and his at times combustible personality, being one of the worst outfielders in the game since coming over via trade. That’s a powderkeg, in a sport full of proverbial sparks. We don’t often appreciate the disasters that don’t happen, but don’t kid yourself. The last two seasons have had as many land mines as the final scene of Bad Boys 2. As much as Luhnow and Hinch and the players themselves deserve credit for that, so does Springer. Who, by the way, in pure baseball terms, arguably catalyzed the turnaround when he moved to the leadoff spot. Some fans think that in a few years, when the contracts of Altuve, Keuchel, Correa, McCullers and others come up, that Springer should be the guy they let walk. Nonsense. Much like Draymond Green, while not the 1, is absolutely indispensable to the Warriors, so too is Springer to the Astros. Oh, and he doesn’t own a cell phone or have social media accounts, making him an anti-millennial — and hero.
Dallas Keuchel — Jeremy Renner
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Took what felt like forever to catch on. Eventually got his shot to be The Guy. Lived up to it in a big way. But from there, never really maintained that level. Wasn’t bad, per se. Just was never that again. Jeremy Renner paid his dues as much as anyone in Hollywood, schlepping in bit roles on TV shows and straight-to-TV movies, before finally getting real big-screen run as the good guy-turned-bad guy in S.W.A.T. But it wasn’t for another four years — and forgettable showings in movies like Catwoman and 28 Weeks Later — that he became the centerpiece of a project that had a chance to be a masterpiece: Hurt Locker. And man, did Renner deliver. His performance as Staff Sergeant William James — a dark and detached Army bomb disposal expert in the Middle East who becomes addicted to the thrill of the near-death lifestyle — was everything it needed to be. All at once exhilarating and uncomfortable. Yeah that guy’s nuts! I’d totally be outta there in a minute! … Right? WAIT, WOULD I STAY, TOO?!? That type of arrival, you figure, Renner’s gonna be around for years to come. Hit after hit after hit — this is gonna be fun! Only, it didn’t happen that way. He had a good showing as a B character in The Town. Became Hawkeye in the Avengers franchise. But never really got back to that level. It’s easy to forget: Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010, and beat out an absolutely LOADED ballot: Avatar, Blind Side, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up and Up In The Air. But from there, things got kinda… eh. Much in the same way, Keuchel’s career arc has been fascinating to watch. 7th round draft pick of the Astros. Bounced around the minors for three years. Didn’t make his big league debut until age-24, which is, by baseball standards, kinda old. Got smacked around for a few years in the bigs. 5.27 ERA. 5.15 ERA. Then, all of a sudden, WHAM. 2.93 ERA in 2014, just before that magical run he had in 2015. 2.48 ERA. 20 wins. Most WAR among AL pitchers. Best WHIP. Most shutouts. Best adjusted ERA. Oh, and his home split: 15-0, 1.46 ERA. Just unreal. What Keuchel did was unreal by anyone’s standards. Masterful in the playoffs, too. Six shutout innings against the Yankees in the Wild Card. (Win). Seven innings of one run ball in the Division Series against the Royals. (Win). Touched up a bit in Game 5, but that was on three days rest and with Keuchel coming out of the pen. All in all, that’s the type of season you as an Astros fan are just awestruck by. That you’ll be telling your grand kids about, right after you explain to them what Unwritten Rules were. (Because by that time, god willing, they’re a thing of the past). Thing is, I don’t know that Keuchel will ever get back to that level. Not in terms of the numbers — a season that masterful is almost impossible to replicate. But the overall caliber. Is Keuchel, who beat out David Price, Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Wade Davis, Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber to win the Cy Young last year, a perennial Cy Young candidate? Is he even the ace of the staff in two years? (Keep reading to see my answer on that…). Yes, Keuchel has bounced back from a rough start this season, tallying seven straight quality starts. But with the way MLB’s strike zone is shrinking, and commissioner Rob Manfred may or may not have been up to some funny business with the baseball itself, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that Keuchel again. He’ll still be really, really good, and worth the schmedium-sized contract he gets eventually, but that? I don’t think so.
Lance McCullers — Zac Efron
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Star talent. Star pedigree. And whaddo you know? THEY’RE STARS! I can’t speak credibly to Zac Efron’s early work, because it was Disney and I’m a self-respecting, 27-year-old dude. Haven’t seen it. Am not going to. But I can tell you this: when you start out with Disney, you arrive at mainstream, dude-friendly celebrity eventually. Justin Timberlake. Ryan Gosling. We could do this for days. Get in with The Mouse early, and wild success is basically a formality. So Efron — who did a bunch of stuff that, to be honest, I don’t really care to research but can confidently say happened — was always supposed to be who he is today. Which is, one of the brightest stars in the business. Comedies, like That Awkward Moment, Neighbors and Neighbors 2 and Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates. Dramas, like We Are Your Friends. Action (ish?) flicks, like the upcoming Baywatch movie. Get used to this, because with this guy’s chops and range, he ain’t going anywhere. That’s where we’re at with Lance McCullers. Think about this. In the last 20 years in the American League, only two starters — Francisco Liriano of the Twins, Barry Zito of the A’s — have had a lower career ERA at age-22 or younger than McCullers. That’s phenom status right there. Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard — that’s the class of pitcher we’re talking about, guys who’ve been that good this early, and McCullers has arguably been better at his age than they were at theirs. McCullers, who also has the highest strikeouts per 9 innings in the AL this season, is so good, in fact, he’s on his way to usurping Dallas Keuchel as the ace of the rotation. And that has nothing to do with the concerns you may or may not have about Keuchel. It’s all about McCullers’ stuff. Case in point: McCullers this season has the third highest swinging strike percentage among AL starters. Meaning, he’s not beating guys by fishing for the corners and hoping the umps give him calls. (Like, say…) He’s beating guys head-to-head. Their best against his. If that’s how you do it, you’re generally (a) really, really talented and (b) sticking around for a really, really long time. The sky really is the limit for this guy. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. McCullers was a former first round pick. His dad, Lance McCullers Sr., was a quality reliever for six years in the bigs. As Malcolm Gladwell taught us in Outliers, there’s no better predictor of making the major leagues than having a father who did. So while it’s nice to see it finally come together the way it has, it hardly qualifies as a surprise. Makes for great TV, though. And, every Tuesday at 8:30 am, radio.
Alex Bregman — Ezra Miller
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You think he’ll be good, and why wouldn’t you? All signs are pointing in that direction, with no real evidence to the contrary. But until it actually happens, it’s still something of a question mark. You might remember Ezra Miller from that fantastically awkward sex scene in Tranwreck with Amy Schumer. (If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out this weekend. Schumer, Bill Hader, LeBron, John Cena — really good stuff). But by the end of next year, you’ll remember him for his performance as The Flash in the new Justice League movie, for better or worse. Watching the trailer that dropped at Comic Con over the weekend, it’s pretty clear that his Miller’s portrayal of Barry Allen is potentially make-or-break type stuff. Affleck as Batman will be what it’ll be. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a safe bet to be excellent, and smoking hot. John Mamosa as Dothraki Aquaman (kidding, but the irony is worth noting: the guy who’s playing the King of the Seven Seas was also, in a story about the race to rule the Seven Kingdoms, a guy from a tribe famous for its ability to manipulate fire) is probably the only time in human history Aquaman will be cool. But Miller’s Flash it’s going to be what holds that movie together… or not. And the Cyber Dork Community is already pumping up the hype train. The way they’re describing it, Miller is expected to be in this movie what Tom Holland was as Spider-man in Captain America: Civil War. But even if you think it’ll happen, and have no concrete reason to doubt that it will, until it actually happens, you just never know. You could say much of the same about Alex Bregman. The 2016 Astros, who had the third highest odds in Vegas of winning the World Series before the season, should make a deep playoff run this fall. Anything less than an ALCS is, for my money, something of a disappointment. And the pillars of that are, and always will be, Altuve, Correa, Springer, Keuchel and McCullers. But Bregman, if he can adjust to the speed of the major league game in time, can be the piece that can put them over the top. World Series. He really can be that important. Altuve, Correa and Springer is as good an offensive core as any in the majors. But there are other teams who have three quality bats, too. The Jays have Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders. Hell, the Red Sox, they have four guys who are absolutely raking — David “Old Man Muscles” Ortiz, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Braldey Jr. If the Astros wanna be able to hang with that kind of firepower, they need someone else. And Bregman can absolutely be that. The way it generally goes in sports, if, at the lower level, you have great numbers and great tools, it’s a pretty safe bet that your performance will translate on the big stage. Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston may have had similar stats in college. But you should’ve been able to tell just by looking at them, Manziel (who’s 5’11 and a catastrophe, personally) and Winston (who may as well have been made by a 3-D QB printer) were gonna have distinctly different futures in the pros. Bregman, who’s rise and production in the minors were similar to that of Correa, absolutely has the pure skill to give you really good feeling about his chances. But until we see it happen, we just don’t know if it ever will.
Matt Hammond hosts Saturdays from 11-3 pm on SportsRadio 610 and fill ins during the week. You can, and totally should, follow him on Twitter @MattHammondShow.
*Big thanks to Cody Stoots and Garret Heinrich for the help with putting this together. *