The Greatest…

After reading my A-Rod Saved the Hall of Fame article my dad commended me for the piece, but also disputed one item…that baseball is the greatest sport ever created. He chose football. I’m confident that he is in the majority in America these days with this opinion, but it made me start to think…what is the criteria for “greatest sport”? (And for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to limit it to greatest sport in North America ). I’m sure everyone will have different categories, so I will admittedly take the selfish stance and just share what I think the criteria are, and why, when all is said and done, I still say that baseball is the greatest sport ever created. And with apologies to basketball and hockey fans, I’m going to disqualify both of you from the discussion because the NBA and NHL are killing your sport…but more importantly because this will be 15,000 words if I keep you in the debate. I will concede three areas to those sports: 1. Hockey has the best fights  2. Basketball has the best All-Star weekend and 3) it has the best “event” every year, though it’s at the college level only. That being said, let’s look at the tale of the tape.

 Excitement: The first criterion that most football apologists point to is the speed and excitement of the game as being why football is superior. I will concede this point… every snap of football has action and draws you in. Every pitch has the potential for action, but does not necessarily end up with action.  But before we go too far, does everyone realize that DirectTV replays each NFL game in 30 minutes after they remove everything from between the end of one play to the beginning of the other?! Seriously… the games take 3 hours and there is 30 minutes of action. Now for the other side of the argument, you could probably do similar with baseball games, so I’ll leave that alone. In fact, I’ll even concede the excitement category to football with only one dissenting opinion: when there are high pressure games and situations, baseball’s excitement level can exceed that of football. Baseball’s ability to exceed is not just for the great plays, Maz’s walk-off, Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world, Don Larsen’s perfect game, because the NFL can answer with the Immaculate Reception, Montana to Clark, Dyson down on the 1 yard line, etc.  It also comes because the playoffs are series. The Red Sox come back from 3-0 in ’04, the Pirates come back after being left for dead in ’60 & ’71, the back and forth of the ’47 series with the Dodgers & Yankees, the Miracle Mets of ’69, the Twins & Braves in ’91 going to the 10th inning of game 7 at 0-0 with the tension exploding through the hideous roof of the Metrodome. The build-up from day to day can send it to frenzied levels. That being said… this category goes to football by the margin of the Rams’ victory over the Titans.

 Statistical Analysis: This is probably the least debatable point in this discussion. Yes, statistics are important when it comes to Hall of Fame resumes in football, but you don’t just throw out numbers like 61, 755, & 56 and have people instantly know what you are talking about. Does everyone know how many yards Emmitt Smith ended up with? Does everyone know how many sacks Michael Strahan had? Does everyone know the records for yards and TD’s for a career by a QB? Also, because of the nature of stat-keeping the sacks record is meaningless because Deacon Jones set the record long ago, but it wasn’t an official stat. And in the early years, the forward pass wasn’t a factor, but now it is enormous. The game has changed (albeit for the better) so it becomes difficult to put overwhelming weight on it when looking over time. Baseball is pretty close to the same game that it has always been. This is what increases the value of statistics by the fans. And even though we are familiar with the dead-ball era, the juiced ball era, and now the juiced player era the numbers still hold fairly true with only a few exceptions.  Football people don’t even argue this point. They will be quick to point out that Barry Sanders was superior to Emmitt Smith despite the records. Emmitt hung around too long and got the record for the then-woeful Cardinals. So anyway, this paragraph may not be the greatest ever written, but I feel it needs the weakest defense. This one goes to baseball.

 Public Outcry:  Since the steroid story keeps coming up, this is actually a good barometer for the greatness of the sport. Now the following argument is based on the premise that using steroids and performance enhancing drugs is cheating. If you do not believe this premise, then the logic will prove faulty and you should just move on to the next section. While baseball is in the midst of the outcry over steroids, the NFL also went through a similar time in the 1980’s and it was accompanied by public outcry as well. The NFL then put in place a nice testing policy and here we are today in an era when guys test positive for banned substances and the first question is, “do we play any hard teams while he’s out and when do we get him back”. The outcry has fizzled due to one reality: The public is more concerned with how entertaining of a game we have today than they are with purity and history of the league. It mirrors the “on-demand” way of life that is reality in the 21st century. And that’s ok. That’s what football is and the league doesn’t shy away from that. Baseball, for reasons we’ll get to in the next section, just isn’t comfortable with that. Baseball still cares about and holds to the old traditions and the stats, and the history. Thus Barry Bonds using steroids is not only an affront to all of the current pitchers that gave up home runs to him, it’s also an affront to Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, & Willie Mays because it cheapens their legacy by tainted means. This is why we spend 2 weeks of 24 hour media coverage to shred the “A-Roid” story. Because he is lessening the value of our heroes… and no one wants to see their heroes shamed, especially not by a “cheater”. This is “old school” so to speak, and that’s why some call this mentality provincial, but I just love that we care. Again, the edge falls to baseball.

 History: Here is where I really think Baseball is set apart. And even if you find 18 other categories that football is better in, I will still say that the tale of the tape will come out in favor of baseball because of how great the weight of this item is. Here are a few of the many elements within the history that matter so much:

 1)      Breadth – The breadth of Major League Baseball history is vast in comparison to the NFL (and NBA & NHL). In the early 1900’s baseball was the game for the everyman. Unlike horse-racing, tennis, and other country club games, baseball could be played with makeshift equipment and in alleys and vacant lots across the country. Before the NFL’s first championship was played the greatest player probably to ever play baseball was two years from retirement (Babe Ruth) and the largest scandal to ever hit the game had taken place and was reduced to just a memory (The Black Sox). World War I, the roaring 20’s, the Great Depression, and World War II all used baseball as an escape, an exiting outing, or a morale boost through those times.

2)      Popular Culture – I know pop culture is hard to measure but these are just samples. In the 1920’s the term Herculean was replaced by Ruthian when it came to efforts of extraordinary proportions.  In 1908 ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ was a #1 hit on the charts.When it comes to quotability and phrases that have become part of the normal lexicon of American life Yogi Berra was one of the single greatest contributors. I would say that Vince Lombardi was probably the greatest NFL contributor, but I believe that Yogi outpaces him. I’m sure at this point you are about to bring up how the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of pop culture, and that has validity, but for a recent decade the games were so bad the pinnacle of pop culture was all about the commercials and not the sport. If you look for history in film, I give you this challenge (this is off the top of my head): Name the most well known football movies (The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall, Invincible, Brian’s Song, Any Given Sunday, The Replacements, The Express, Friday Night Lights, Gridiron Gang, Necessary Roughness, the Program, Radio, Rudy, The Waterboy & Varsity Blues). Now name the most well known baseball movies (The Natural, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, The Rookie, Bad News Bears, Angels in the Outfield, The Babe, Bang The Drum Slowly, Baseball – by Ken Burns, Bull Durham, Major League, Cobb, Hardball, For the Love of the Game, A League of Their Own, The Sandlot, 61* ). Seriously…is there any comparison between those two lists?! The quality and the reverence given the sport in a majority of those films is overwhelmingly in favor of baseball.

3)      Cultural & Human Impacts – Here we see further distancing from the other sports. A large number of people are much more aware of Tommy John the surgery than they are of the man, but baseball’s legacy is ever extended by the procedure. There is a reason more people know what Lou Gehrig’s disease is than ALS. His speech, his legacy, & and his face personified a disease. When I think about the military and how Pat Tillman is the poster-boy for the NFL and serving your country to the sacrifice of fame and fortune, it is a disservice to not also look at Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams and others who gave up the prime of their careers to serve in the military. Even governmental flight regulation and enforcement was altered due to the easily avoidable death of Roberto Clemente. And who can forget the impact of Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the rest of baseball to the very early years of the civil rights movement. These are all shadows of significance cast by the imposing figure of baseball history.  I’m sure that I have left out examples from other sports, but when I spoke with others and tried to rack my own brain, it just didn’t come easy like it does with baseball.

4)      The Moment – There is one moment in one of the most contentious presidencies in modern history that I have never heard a commentator of any political persuasion talk about without using words like awe, amazement, chilling, patriotic, goose-bumps, or inspiring. It was Game 3 of the World Series following the September 11th terrorist attacks and the nation was still reeling and on edge. President Bush walked out to the mound at Yankee Stadium by himself, in plain view of the entire world, stood atop the mound and threw out the first pitch. But it wasn’t just any pitch… he threw a perfect strike under enormous pressure and attention, and wearing a flak-jacket (which is no small feat). The fact that it was a strike enhanced the legacy of the moment, as though it was stating that not only is America still standing, America is (to borrow from Charlie Daniels) the best there’s ever been. So with no words…just the biggest stage at the most hallowed stadium, a message was sent loud and clear throughout the nation and the world. It was a perfect picture painted on a canvas of baseball.

So what am I trying to conclude? Really I’m just trying to conclude this article before you fall asleep. So in summary, I will say that the greatest sport is dependant on what you seek. Do you want the most entertainment from a game in the middle of the season between any random teams? In that case, I will have to say that football wins. If you want the sport that is most deeply interwoven into the fabric of our nation and has produced the epic, the tragic, the hopeful, the hated, and the unbelievable… I think that there is only one choice.


Categories: Sports General

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