There is no need to remind you of the breathtaking athletic prowess of Kenny Powers. Although to the untrained eye it might have looked as if he'd never been taught how to properly throw a baseball, he had a legendary, if journeyman, career as a major league closer, in which he caused scores of batters to weep at the power and beauty of both his fastball and his mullet. If not for the bribes and threats directed at the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED by past winners such as Dean Smith, Tom Brady and the particularly vicious Bonnie Blair, he might have added perhaps half a dozen Sportsman of the Year awards to his already overflowing truck bed of accolades.
Now, after a 2013 in which he pressed his fingers to a baseball's seams only briefly during the year's final moments and yet through the force of his will conquered everything in his path—and in so doing made us expand our definition of what a sportsman might possibly be—his time has finally come.
In years past, when he was merely a baseball player, Powers ascended tremendous heights and so, like a foulmouthed Icarus, he had far to fall. Fall, he did. He developed a substance-abuse problem that would have killed a lesser man and many midsized beasts of burden. In a desperate attempt to revive his career he made an extended, desultory pit stop in Mexico, where he spent as much time on that nation's pitching mounds as in its brothels and cockfighting rings and where people still whisper about the man they called La Flama Blanca. He is, and will likely forever remain, Major League Baseball's alltime leader in the statistical category of number of times one has faked one's own death during a game.
"When I rolled back the stone and rose like the mighty phoenix, there were some who couldn't process the uncut majesty of the event," Powers says. But in 2013 he gave his doubters no choice. This was the year that Powers was at his finest. He became a philanthropist, under the auspices of his Kenny Powers' Extra Innings After School Baseball Camp. While the underprivileged youths he helped might have been skeptical of his efforts—"Who are you?" one asked, after he'd presented them with a new field and a bag of equipment—there is no doubt that they might one day appreciate their benefactor's stature and largesse.
He became a businessman, the visionary impresario behind the baked-potato kiosk "Taters 'n' T---," into which he poured some $5.7 thousand after he had shrewdly identified a previously unsatisfied appetite among mallgoers for both fixin's and capacious golden bustiers. He became a humanitarian; the world won't forget how he prevented his friend and de facto manservant, Stevie Janowski, from committing suicide, at the cost of only Janowski's recently implanted artificial chin.
Powers became a media titan too, outshouting, outwitting, outdissing and out--racially taunting his fellow sports champions to usurp control of the hit debate show Sports Sesh. His television success brought him fabulous riches, and he basked in them: a saltwater pool, an all-expenses-paid trip to the Congo Canyon water park, $5,000 suits, copious amounts of fine white Zinfandels, a dancing robot named Yul Brynner.
Powers's greatest triumph this year, however, came only after he finally learned to resist fame's siren call, to separate the man from the ball. "Fame, fortune, power, t------: People say these are the most crucial things in life," he says. "But you can have a pocket full of gold, and it doesn't mean s--- unless you have someone to share that gold with." He reached the apex of his second profession—he had been given his own show, The Powers Hour, and was poised to become the next Ellen DeGeneres, although, as he made certain to point out, he is not a lesbian—and was on the cusp of stepping up to the next level of superstardom ("product endorsements, restaurant chains, sex tapes, a mother------' fragrance"). But he gave it all up for the sake of his beleaguered and estranged wife, the former April Buchanon, and his emotionally neglected children, Toby and Shayna.
"I thought that fame, fortune and success was the only way I'd ever be happy, and I paid a steep price for this train of thinking," he said. "I lost the only woman I've ever loved, and the only woman who ever loved me. So from this moment forward the vicious dragon that was Kenny Powers will retreat back to his cave. Back to hibernate, until the next foolish knight awakens his wrath."
Now Powers contentedly slumbers, but still we can treasure what he has left behind, all that he relentlessly and entertainingly embodied, exposed and skewered. Tilted racial, sexual and power dynamics. Widely accepted conceptions of masculinity. Suburban ennui. The absurdity of televised sports shouting. The deeply antisocial behavior we accept from those who are skilled with a ball in their hands. Above all, America's obsession with celebrity and with wealth.
Kenny Powers sounds an awful lot like the sportsman of his generation. The least we can do is make him Sportsman of the Year.*
The fourth and final season of HBO's entirely fictional comedy Eastbound and Down, which centered on the exploits of major league washout Kenny Powers (played by Danny McBride), concluded on Nov. 17.
*Mr. Powers will not be SI's 2013 Sportsman of the Year.
"He had a legendary career, in which he caused scores of batters to weep at the power and beauty of both his fastball and his mullet.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT; FRED NORRIS/HBO (POWERS)