In the interminable weeks between the end of the conference championships and the start of Super Bowl LII sports commentary waxed hyperbolic, having no real reporting to offer, resolutely chewing on the same theme hour after hour. Tom Brady, The Greatest Quarterback of All Time, would carry the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory, despite having recently managed to wedge his throwing hand into a crevice in running back Rex Burkhead’s helmet, despite the likely loss of Brady’s favorite target, a man described as “a self-aware lump of protein powder”, pass catching Golem Rob Gronkowski, despite the glaring weaknesses in the Patriot’s defense, and despite the best efforts of the talented and well-coached Philadelphia Eagles.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is also Greatest of All Time, an honorific now somewhat diminished when squashed into the acronym and meme GOAT. The Patriots themselves are occasionally termed the Greatest Football Dynasty of All Time, and in empty hours in sports journalism, strident argument rages as the case is made for LeBron James or Michael Jordan as, you know, the Greatest of All Time.
We (sports fans) were charmed by the effrontery, the chutzpah, with which a young Muhammad Ali declared himself The Greatest, but cringe a bit when Wayne Gretsky is still termed, The Great One. Those who survived the Depression and fought in World War II are the Greatest Generation, and I’m told Alexander, Catherine, and Gatsby were all pretty Great.
Then, in addition, Time, I believe, is something of a mystery, perhaps vulnerable to manifold topology, but maybe not, an obscure way of observing that even the most prescient of us has a fairly limited set of experiences against which to judge the absolute standard of performance in any sport. The same holds true for actors and entertainers, but we seem less compelled to deify even the most obviously superior. Is Meryl Streep the Greatest Actress of All Time? Dunno. Maybe. Doesn’t seem to matter as much as the LeBron/Jordan battle.
I’m not sure why this need to wax hyperbolic has set in; perhaps having known what might have been the best of times and now sliding into what feels like the the worst we find comfort in speaking with absolute certainty ? Maybe the ferocity of competition and the necessity to keep score inherent in sport as we know it demands final judgment. My guess is that since we experience the great moments of sport from a distance, second-hand, our sport becomes the championing of one athlete or team over another, a game that never ends.
In those long weeks before the NFL championship game, sports outlets routinely drag out whatever football footage they happen to have in the can. Over a period of two days, I saw clips of Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Jerome Bettis, and Earl Campbell. Nobody’s screening O.J.’s scrambling breakaways at USC, but I remember them well.
Want to pick one as the greatest?
Go ahead, but don’t forget the runners whose feats may not have been so meticulously preserved on film. I’ve seen grainy footage of Red Grange breaking loose for a touchdown, but only have the sportwriters’ words to describe the heroics of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Doak Walker.
I keep my collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia close at hand in case someone drops by and wants to see a copy of his rookie contract or my well-oiled 1959 Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove, and I treasure my memories of him in the field and at bat, but is he the greatest of all time? A version of this sort of question came up as a friend of mine who had attended Bolles School in Florida as did Chipper Jones asked if Jones, a first ballot Hall of Famer, had a place in my list of the ten best third basemen of all time.
I have two lists, of course, the best to play the position for the New York Yankees and the ostensible best to have played in the major leagues. In responding, I was aware once again that I take a player such as Adrian Beltre for granted as I took Paul Molitor and Ron Santo for granted. I knew Wade Boggs was a heck of a third baseman, but thought of him primarily as a hitter as I did George Brett. The Braves weren’t on television every day back when they played in Milwaukee, so I didn’t see enough of Eddie Matthews. Writers assure me that Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and Jimmy Collins should be in the mix. In the end, however, it comes down to my memory of Mike Schmidt’s dominance in his era, particularly in the Phillies’ world series victory in 1980, and my reverence for the fielder known as “the vacuum cleaner”, Brooks Robinson.
All of that said, Chipper more than earned a spot in the top four or five. Will Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson make the cut twenty years from now? I hope so.
As for the Jordan/LeBron argument, the game is still afoot. Steak or lobster? Pie or ice cream? Valhalla or Olympus? I have only this to add to the conversation: Jordan played on his high school’s junior varsity team until his junior year; LeBron averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman. I saw LeBron play for St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School. In my mind, case closed.
Except … I also saw Jordan literally fly.