Planning on a slumpbuster

Years ago a certain B.A.S.S. tour-level pro came very close to winning the Angler of the Year title. It boiled down to the last day of the season and he fell just a bit short.

In subsequent seasons he never again approached that level of success, consistently landing in the middle of the pack or lower. He spoke in interviews about how he had to break out of the slump and get back to the level at which he’d performed in that one great season.

During that time, I had the opportunity to spend a day in the boat with Denny Brauer, and the topic turned to his struggling fellow pro. When I mentioned the other pro’s slump, Brauer – ever the statesman – stopped fishing, turned around and deadpanned that “It’s not a slump if you only have one good year.”

One outlying good year among a long list of stinkers is not Todd Faircloth’s problem. On the contrary, he’s always hovering around the title, and twice has fallen just short, finishing second to Kevin VanDam in 2008 and second to Greg Hackney this year. So which is better: getting a taste of the sun’s warmth and living off of that for the rest of your career, or continually getting close to the sun and getting nothing but a burn?

Because Faircloth is an introvert’s introvert, we’ll likely never get the full record on his frustration, but it’s probably accurate to say that second for the second time stinks twice as much. In 2008, Faircloth entered the season-ending tournament on Oneida with the lead, only to see KVD pass him. This time he could not pay forward that favor to Hackney, who came into the tournament in the lead, stumbled a little (after a three-day delay) and still couldn’t be caught. Just fourteen points separated them, but it might as well have been a million. I’m sure that Faircloth will spend a significant portion of this offseason, if not the rest of his life, trying to figure out where he could’ve made up that gap – perhaps at Escanaba, where Hackney finished 24th out of 50, but just as easily at the Delaware, where Hackney was 48th, or more likely in little bits here and there over the course of the season.

As long as we’re talking about notable number twos, my mind immediately turns to recently-retired shortstop Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. The statheads will forever argue that he was subpar in many regards, particularly with respect to fielding, but despite those analyses, Jeter is thought of by most as a star in every respect. When fans talk about him, it’s just as likely to be about his jump-throws from deep in the hole at short, or his bloodied emergence from the Fenway stands with a pop fly in his glove, as it is about his offensive exploits. In a recent column, Grantland’s Jonah Keri explained that this is due to “selection bias”:

People remember a few extraordinary events, then ignore or even repress the information that might contradict that initial impression. With Jeter in particular, it’s nearly impossible to make the visceral reaction agree with the data, because Jeter has pulled off some of the most incredible defensive plays we’ve ever seen.

While selection bias might help someone like Jeter, it works against someone who is continually good but not flashy, like Faircloth. Rather than remembering Faircloth’s consistency and four Bassmaster wins, our minds are led to his AOY near-misses, and that colors our sense of where he stands in the pantheon of angling greats. He’s been so good for so long, but when it comes to the big titles he’s always fallen a little bit short. It’s certainly an unfair basis upon which to judge him, but unfortunately selection bias works down as well as up.

Jeter’s legacy will also be enhanced by the fact that he seemed to make those great plays on his sport’s biggest stages – against Boston in a game of the week, in the playoffs, or in the World Series. When all eyes were on him, he seemed to shine. Faircloth, despite a tremendous list of accomplishments, doesn’t yet have that signature “wow” moment that defines his career. Furthermore, Jeter always seemed to position himself to take advantage of little breaks and oddities that most of us never seem to get. In Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS, a young fan deflected Jeter’s long fly into the Yankee Stadium stands to help the Yankees come from behind. More recently, In Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium, the normally unhittable relief pitcher David Robertson blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning, which allowed Jeter to come up in the 9th to deliver the game-winning hit. Clearly, the hit was all his own doing, but getting to that point required a somewhat implausible series of events, the types that great-but-less-lucky superstars like Ernie Banks or Dan Marino – and perhaps Todd Faircloth – never seem to get. It reminds me of the Paul Simon song “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy”:

Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze

Drifting through a summer night

Heading for a sunny day

But most folks' lives, oh they stumble

Lord they fall

Through no fault of their own

Jeter seems to fall into the former category. So far, Faircloth seems to end up in the latter category. No matter how well he fishes, no matter how incredibly versatile he may be, someone else prevents him from reaching that sunny day of first place.

Of course, there’s time for that to change. The good news is that Faircloth will reach his 40th birthday during the 2015 Elite Series season. If he can add a Classic title or an AOY trophy next year or in the subsequent campaigns, any doubt about his status as an all-time great will evaporate, but until then the doubts will remain. That’s not really fair. For some folks a slump is a couple of 50th place AOY finishes in a row. For others, it’s a drop to 90th. Some of that crew would kill to get into the Classic, let alone finish 2nd in the AOY race. Faircloth, unfortunately, is a victim of his own success. Much like Aaron Martens’ four second place Classic finishes, until he wins a title, it’s always going to be “When are you going to win one?” rather than “Why are you so consistently good?”

As we learned from KVD’s subpar 2014 campaign, there are no gimmes or guarantees in the bass world, no reserved spot at the Classic. Faircloth would certainly benefit from a Jeterian break sometime in the near future, but he may never get it. Roland Martin never won the Classic. Nor has Gary Klein. The legacies of the title-holders are easy to assess, as are those of anglers in a “perpetual slump.” The tougher ones are those pros who perpetually hover near the top, never quite breaking through with a TV-ready highlight. Faircloth is the only person who can remedy that for himself, as surely he is constantly aware.