One of the most beloved tropes in sports lore is the Triumph of the Unexpected Body. When I think about those stories, I think about cheering on Muggsy Bogues from my friend's living room when I was eight or nine. I knew nothing about basketball, but seeing that small man dart around the court alongside NBA giants compelled me to lend my fandom to his cause, knowing he was giving short athletes a surge of hope.
I also think about the fervor with which my high school boyfriend loved the movie Rudy, wherein the future Samwise Gamgee plays a runty, determined football player who dreams of playing for Notre Dame. I watched it with him once, and I remember how he clenched his jaw when the movie inspired a predictable surge of emotion; later, overcome, his jaw trembled in spite of his efforts. Those big, hazel eyes of his grew pink, and he blinked fast, mopping up the water with his prodigious, dark eyelashes. Then he let out a breath like he'd been holding it and refocused on the movie. He was on the short side, too.
The unexpected body is one that looks out of place in a sport, the grown-up version of the kid who always heard they had "a good heart, but the body's just not there." They defy society's narrow expectations; they make everyone eat their words. And when I think about unexpected bodies today, I think about ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" cover model, Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder.
People expect certain kinds of bodies from certain kinds of athletes, with each little pocket of competition tending toward a preferred morphotype. Opposite Balanchine's ideal ballerinas, with their small heads and sloped shoulders and long feet tacked onto their whisper-light frames, football likes men who are broad and tall and thickly draped in muscle, the largeness of the frame superseded only by the voracious nature of the appetite required to maintain—never mind bulk-up—such a massive organism. Basketball, on the other hand, has a known affinity for an ultra-tall, ultra-lean body. Unsurprisingly, this year NBA hopeful Isaiah Austin's career was snuffed out by a diagnosis of Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue resulting in unusually long limbs and fingers, and potentially fatal complications.
But baseball is somewhat more relaxed in the body department, thanks in part to the diversity of positions. There are durable, muscular catchers; shortstops with those fast-twitch, spring-loaded legs; third baseman who are sturdily built yet lean enough to snap and twist at the waist. Who would look at Babe Ruth, Ichiro Suzuki, Greg Maddux, Barry Bonds, Yu Darvish, and Yasiel Puig, and assume they were all professional athletes at the highest level of the same sport?
And then there's Prince. In a sport where a little girth is well tolerated, and the most solidly built are most likely to be found crouched behind the plate (with some exceptions), the Prince of Arlington is in a category unto himself. He is large, anomalously so for baseball: A listed weight of 275 pounds seems impossibly low when you see him at his post by first. He is a solid man, heavy and lumbering. Sometimes he trips on his feet a little. Sometimes he goes for an attempted steal. One time, after chasing a foul ball, he reached into the stands, snagged a fan's nacho, and ate it.
The man is a legend.
And he runs like a force of nature. He's hit not one, but two inside-the-park home runs in the majors; he hit a face-first-diving triple during last year's All-Star Game. Prince booking it is pure baseball gold, his approach to hurtling himself through space a sheer miracle of physics. A typical double begins with the crack of the bat and a lumbering skitter, accelerating to a scamper that requires a substantial fight with inertia just to make the sharp turn to second, after which he will fall into a desperate scramble for the base, ending with the inevitable belly flop—his only chance of stopping. Sometimes this timed swan dive goes well, and he lands near or on the bag, latching onto it with his arms and chest. Other times, his timing is premature, and he flops down several feet short. To see a man of his size crush a ball is cathartic; to see that same man vie for an extra base is glorious baseball wizardry.
There's an audacity to Fielder's athleticism. That he could be so unusually large for the game and yet still play it well, combined with the fact that he appears to give not a single fuck about the former, make him an easy favorite. He's an 162-day-a-year reminder that cultural body norms are almost always short-sighted and lacking, at the very least. With his exceptional mass, his sloppy but enthusiastic running, his swing that spans wide and arching, and his frantic mid-run dives, Prince Fielder embodies so much of what's great about the game. He's our ultimate fat baseball player.
And we haven't even gotten to the most incredible part: Prince Fielder looks amazing naked.
Just look at him on ESPN's cover, commanding and formidable, his thighs solid like the concrete holding up an ocean pier. His chest and arms are massive. Fielder's muscles, bunched and coiled under the expanse of his thick flesh, curve the lines of his many tattoos. And in the very middle of the page, right there for the world to see, is that which will launch the frantic Photoshopping of innumerable cakes onto innumerable sports nudes. Inescapable and unrepentant, it looks both soft and weighted; it creases over at the pelvis, looming slightly over the tops of those enormous thighs. It's Prince Fielder's belly. And it's freaking people out.
Which is weird. This backlash is a curious response. Americans, as a nation, are fat, giving us more in common with Fielder than anyone else you'd likely see in the "Body Issue." But even though he's currently the internet's doughy punch line, he's still miles beyond the average American, fitness-wise. Prince looks like he could rip trees out of the ground with his bare hands. He looks nothing like the soft office workers of America. He looks like he could kill you.
So what's behind this mock-revulsion? Is it that we have all so deeply internalized the old message about thinness and worth that when we see something close to what our own mirrors show us—something with dimension and heft—we reject it out of habit, recognizing it as flawed and wanting? This isn't the tight, sparse body of the romantic leading man, perfectly calibrated to be just lean enough to reveal the twin crevices leading from his hips to inside his perfectly tailored pants. And yet, Fielder has the audacity to suffer no apparent distress due to his size, and even goes so far as to seem smugly pleased with himself.
Sure, his size and eager style of play make him an easy target, but maybe the jokes are just a way for people to start getting close to a new and scary idea about attraction. Or maybe he's just too much cold water in the face. A person can hang a lot of excuses on a gut: single, tired, lonely, sad, gym too embarrassing, low confidence, bad job, the list goes on. Yet there he is. Prince Fielder. Naked, his body gleaming under the lights, basking in all the public adoration. He gets paid millions to play a child's game for a living, and he is halting and enormous, and women lust for him, and yet, there it is. His gut. And it appears to hold him back from absolutely nothing, not even the unlikely transition from baseball's husky boy to a legitimate sex symbol.
Fielder has again taken up the mantle of the unexpected body by unveiling himself alongside other, conventionally attractive bodies, equally as bare. One unaffected look at him and it's readily apparent just how much he deserves to be there among the physical elite. Moreover, he brings to the forefront all of the things about massive dudes that are so widely appealing to so many. The mix of strong and solid and soft flesh; that there's so much of it, with such an imposing distribution, that safety is all but guaranteed.
The idea someone could cause you to feel so small and vulnerable and yet so soundly protected is a relationship holy grail for many; of course people are fawning over him. Standing sideways in his nude profile, face turned to the camera, bat resting on his neck, the abundance of his ass and his stomach and his chest cling to his musculature, the lines of him thick and arching. His body is calm and alert. Free of the ridiculous pajamas of his baseball uniform, he looks every bit a demigod, confident and sculptural and ursine. Prince Fielder is truly the best kind of unexpected.
Leigh Cowart is a freelance journalist covering sports, science, and sex. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Classical, and NSFWCORP, among other places. Follow her on Twitter @voraciousbrain. Not for the faint of heart.