If you’re as old as me, you may remember a commercial from the 1980s in which Academy Award winner Martha Raye introduced herself as “Martha Raye: Actress and denture wearer.”
Now, nearly 20 years after her death, I’m guessing that most people who remember Raye at all recall her for exploits on stage and on film, not for her faux dentistry. I’m sure that the keepers of her legacy and those who stand to benefit from her estate are pleased by that – any residuals from her films probably pay better than the monthly checks from Polident.
My point, such as it is, is that most of us will only get to pursue excellence and notoriety in one field, so you had better choose that endeavor carefully. There may be second acts in American lives, but only the most select few really gain equal fame, satisfaction and excellence in more than one arena. This brings me to Shaye Baker, who until a couple of weeks ago was best known for his superlative work behind the scenes with a video camera (and secondarily for his dieting attempts). Now that he finished 3rd in the Wild Card event on Okeechobee after leading the first two days – vaulting into the lead with an eye-catching 29-08 in the opening round – the 27 year old’s chosen path seems less obvious.
There’s nothing that says that Baker can’t develop into the both the next Kevin VanDam and the sport’s greatest filmmaker. The skill sets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, KVD’s legacy is enhanced by the fact that he’s a great product spokesman. It’s part of the job description. At the same time, Baker’s forays into lowercase-j journalism create slightly more conflict than the dueling efforts of the pros-slash-TV-hosts like Ike and Shaw and Brauer. Shaye has taken half a step into the media camp. It’s not quite enemy territory, but it complicates matters.
In the decade that I’ve been writing about fishing, I’ve become friendly with a few of the top anglers in the world. In the past year, I vacationed with three different Elite Series pros. With some of the fishermen on tour, I know that if they were no longer competing for a living they’d have no interest in speaking to me, nor I to them. On the other hand, there are several with whom I’d still be friends if they never made another cast. Still, as long as they are competing and I’m writing about the sport, there is always an unspoken divide. There is “us” and there is “them.” I’m not sure whether the barrier more closely resembles a glass ceiling or the velvet rope at a nightclub, but it’s there.
You could attribute my outsiderness to the fact that I’m not at every event, but I think it’s evident even among the full-time journalists. Even James Overstreet, who seems to be universally-liked, admired for the quality of his work and for his contributions to the sport, will always be on my side of the rope. Truth be told, he may be better with a rod and reel than a portion of the Elite field, but no matter how many times he films with Zona, no matter how many great stories he derives from his annual duck trek, he’s always a photographer first, even if photography is for him just a vehicle to experience all of the great outdoors. The divide isn’t concentrated on abilities and skill sets, but rather on where and how you have skin in the game. No matter how an Elite Series tournament ends up, Overstreet is going to take home a check and pay the mortgage on his Arkansas mansion.
For many pros, there’s nothing approaching that certainty, so the time on the water takes on a different character – a sense of urgency that makes them enemies of one another but at the same time binds them together. Until JO is out there on tour, he’ll always be mostly “them” rather than “us” to the pros. Similarly, for a writer like me, there is hay to be made in a great story. For an up-and-coming bass pro, only a fraction of my stories contribute to paying the bills or building a career and the story of his final-day crumble may actually hurt that career. The flip side of that is that if I’m too invested in the outcome of an event, then it’ll compromise my ability to cover it impartially.
My best guess is that if forced to choose one side of the rope or the other, Baker would prefer to be known as an angler rather than for his video work. That doesn’t mean he has to give up one or the other. For example, Mark Hicks has done an admirable job of balancing his writing career with his tournament efforts, but the odds indicate that Hicks will likely be known in our history books primarily for his voluminous output with a computer (and, before that, a pen). Similarly, KVD is an unparalleled promoter, but he’ll always be known as a fierce tournament angler first and foremost. Likewise, Bill Dance was an awesome competitor, but his primary legacy will be as an entertainer and educator.
At this point in his life, Baker should rightfully be drinking from a fire hose, taking in as many experiences as possible, trying to make himself as indispensable in as many venues as possible. It’s too early to specialize and choose a side of the fence. At some point, though, he’ll probably come to that fork in the road. There’s not a universally right choice or wrong choice – and, in fact, there may prove to be a third or fourth or fifth option that proves most satisfying to Baker himself – I only hope he does what’s right for him, and that he does it well.