I don’t know when the acronymical shortcuts took over ordinary and perfectly serviceable terms, such as President of the United States (POTUS) or Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). We got along just fine with President and Supreme Court, assuming that when we used the term President, we meant President of the United States as opposed to President of Guinea-Bissau and our own Supreme Court, not that of Andorra. I’m ok with IKEA rather than Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd (Founder’s name and hometown), but these Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) controversies are inane, seriously.
It’s in the air now because the football season has ended, spring training has not begun, the NBA still has a number of pointless games to play before the playoffs begin, March Madness won’t arrive until March, and golfers are playing in the Midas Muffler Four Ball Scramble in Burkina Faso. The twelve all-sports-all-the-time channels are still pumping out hour after hour of fast-breaking sports nonsense, primarily about trades that might happen, haven’t happened, shouldn’t happen.
The air is thick with sports blather. Even the sportscasters themselves have difficulty in summoning the will to debate the pros and cons of signing Carmelo Anthony to a $124,000,000.00 contract. I’m sorry. What are the pros?
So, out come the “Greatest of All Time” banners, now floating above Tom Brady, but only a month ago whipping from the LeBron camp to the Jordan camp. Is he? Are they? Pats greatest football dynasty of all time? Sabin the greatest college coach of all time? Tiger? Jack?
I’m as enthusiastic in promoting my heroes as the next guy, and evidence of greatness is all about us, but let’s not get reductive. With every assertion (LeBron! Michael!) universes of magical moments in sport are obliterated. Sticking with the basketball argument for the moment, what happens to the Cousey behind the back pass, Jerry West’s jump shot, Kareem’s twenty seasons, Bill Russell’s defense, Magic, Larry, Elgin, Wilt, Oscar, Hakeem, Kobe? What about Steph? What about KD?
Back when he was a reliever for the Rockies, Adam Ottavino was unyielding in his assertion that he’d strike out Babe Ruth every time the Bambino stepped to the plate. Probably snuff out Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins too, according to those who think hitters back in the day did not have to face the fireballs hurlers are tossing on a daily basis. In 1917, however, a lab in Connecticut measured Walter (Big Train) Johnson’s fastball at 134 feet per second, roughly 92 miles per hour. Smokey Joe Wood was a little faster. Bob Feller hit something close to 104 mph, and Nolan Ryan’s best (108 mph) beats Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mph, fastest of the modern era.
The point is obvious: Take it easy in making comparisons across the decades.
Stats don’t tell the whole story, no matter how elegantly the sabermetrics are trotted out, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at the top ten in baseball and basketball in terms of wins above replacement (WAR), the stat that is generally believed to have the best chance of describing a player’s value to a team. The baseball list has a few surprises; Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Roger Clemens, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner. Ruth’s WAR is 182.5; last season’s best, Mookie Betts, rang up 86.8, Mike Trout 79. I don’t know Adam Ottavino’s WAR … oh, wait. Here it is: 2.6 last year, 8.6 career.
In the NBA the stories are perhaps more complicated as the list of the top ten includes LeBron and Michael at the top (James 128.01/ Jordan 104.43) followed by Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Charles Barkley. The next five include Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Larry Bird, and Jason Kidd. Steph Curry is 33rd. Kawhi Leonard ranks 110th.
And none of this matters if you saw Ichiro beat out an infield single, Rod Carew lay down a bunt, Jackie Robinson steal home, Brooks Robinson spear a line drive down the third base line, Omar Vizquel or Ozzie Smith scoop up a hard hit ground ball, Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez or Mariano Rivera, or Greg Maddux or Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford or…
None of this matters if you saw Barry Sanders break a tackle and fly, if you saw Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Gayle Sayers, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett hit the line, stutter step, blaze through, then accelerate. Which highlights do you want to watch? Joe Montana? Jerry Rice? Lawrence Taylor? Reggie White? Dick Butkus? Johnny Unitas? Red Grange? Slingin’ Sammy Baugh?
I like the other sorts of stories, the “we didn’t see this guy coming” stories, the most recent of which is Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman drafted 232nd as a quarterback from Kent State. I like the authentically good person stories, like those of Roberto Clemente and J.J.Watt, super-stars who changed the lives of those they helped. I like the improbable but true overcoming of obstacles, like Peyton Manning winning a Super Bowl with what was pretty much a bolt-on neck, Willis Reed lifting the Knicks from the bench in the 1970 final games, Kerri Strug sticking a perfect landing on an injured ankle, one-handed Jim Abbott throwing a no hit game against the Indians, the Cal Bears running a last play, weaving through the Stanford band, already celebrating on the field.
The greatest of all time?
Army-Navy. Willie Mays’ Catch. Sabrina for a decade. Federer for a decade. Messi. Ken Griffey, Jr. if he hadn’t been injured. Ted Williams if he hadn’t served in two wars. Mo’ne Davis shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. A Championship for Cleveland. The San Diego Chicken.
On the other hand, if you think I’m in max-grouch mode about the GOAT discussion, check this site when Mel Kiper starts to pontificate on the Jaguar’s sixth round draft strategy.