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The sporting death

The murders of Steve McNair and Arturo Gatti stun the sports world, and underscore the complexity of the word "hero."

Then-Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair drops back to pass during the AFC Divisional NFL playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Baltimore, Jan. 13, 2007. (Joe Giza/Reuters)

While the country has been wrestling with the legacy of Michael Jackson, trying to balance the extraordinary talent against the bizarre life, it has been further stunned by the separate murders of two renowned athletes, former NFL great Steve McNair and former boxing champion Arturo Gatti.

McNair, 36, who was married with four children, was shot and killed while sleeping by his suicidal, 20-year-old girlfriend. Gatti, 37, was vacationing at a posh Brazilian resort when, reportedly, he was strangled by his wife while he was in a drunk stupor. Once again we are forced to try and weigh two men’s lifetimes and their achievements — both McNair and Gatti were revered for their toughness on the field and in the ring — against the intrusion of their sordid deaths.

It has never been easy to get a true grasp on our athletic "heroes." Not way back in the day when off-the-field foibles were ignored by the press and Babe Ruth was just portrayed as a lovable lug. And not even now when every foible is fair game — if not for the press then in the less constrained blogosphere. Too often we confuse talent for character. Or we are reluctant to accept that a man can show character in some aspects of his life and be terribly flawed in others.

All of which makes for perfect timing for a new HBO documentary — “Ted Williams: There Goes the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived."

Williams, who played for the Boston Red Sox for four decades, was one of the most complex athletic superstars of the 20th century. He was an angry and wounded man who, despite his prodigious baseball accomplishments and thanks to his tempestuous behavior, managed to turn even his hometown fans against him. He was rude, crude and incredibly thin-skinned — he hated the press and made a sport out of taunting and insulting reporters — and went from the youngster who doffed his cap to adoring fans to a man who contemptuously spit at them.

But “The Kid” could hit a baseball, and was unrivalled in his day for his combination of power and average. He hit .406 in 1941, the last man to top .400 and almost certainly the last man who ever will. His lustrous talent, however, was somewhat dimmed in the public eye by the inevitable comparisons to the other great star of the era, the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. Williams was always viewed as the better hitter, but DiMaggio as the more complete talent, a ballplayer who could run and field as well as hit.

Moreover, Williams couldn’t begin to measure up in the most important stat of all: championships. DiMaggio boasted nine rings, while Williams never won one — and flopped in his only World Series. DiMaggio would also capture more individual honors, as the press, which voted on awards like MVP, exacted their revenge on Williams.

On top of all that, DiMaggio had perfect pitch — never a hair, a word or a step out of place. If there was a metaphor for these rivals’ standing with the public, it might be this: DiMaggio married the cinema’s reigning sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe, while Williams married Delores Wettach, a former model who had once been Miss Vermont. (Neither marriage, though, lasted the full nine innings).