When Tony Gwynn was elected to the Hall of Fame last week it got me thinking about who my absolute favorites are (or were), the athletes who played their games right. Most of them stayed a long time, some of them not nearly long enough. They came to us full of talent and youth and adjusted over the years as their bodies changed. You know who I mean. Yours are different than mine for sure but they're the athletes who make you glad to be a sports fan.
Tony Gwynn is one of them, very, very high on my baseball list. Now I've lived my whole life on the East Coast--and have the New Yawk accent to prove it--so I didn't get to see Tony in person too many times. But we watched him every chance we got. And each time you saw him, he did something worth seeing-taking an extra base, getting a big hit, throwing a runner out at third. His career batting average was .338 so he could hit; did you remember that he had his greatest individual season at age 37 (.372 BA, 17 homers, 119 RBI, 220 hits) at a time when his body was getting rounder, his speed in decline and his team pretty awful? I didn't remember that and now I'm glad I checked.
Being on the left coast, Gwynn didn't really get the attention, particularly on the right coast, that he deserved over the years. He certainly didn't get the attention his peers did--Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken. You know what? He was the best of the bunch. Don't agree? Tell us why.
So who else do I put on my "I'm Glad I'm a Sports Fan Because I Get to Watch Them Play" list?
Well, Mattingly for one. He'll never get to the Hall, and he probably shouldn't because his career was too shortened by his bad back. (Didn't stop Ralph Kiner from getting in, but that's for another day.) But Mattingly was what I'm talking about. He came up a line drive hitter and as he got bigger and stronger, he became a power guy with an RBI instinct. It probably was the years of his too early decline, however, that really sealed the deal with him. His back was bad, his power diminishing and he knew his career wouldn't last long. So he cut his stroke and kept his on-base percentage high as his slugging percentage diminished and his dignity grew. And then at 34 he was gone.
There are more in baseball, of course, but that's your thought starters. This post originated from my comment on a blog from Nationista Shaun Fagan who gave a list of his all-time numbers team. I commented on the numbers you'd never want to wear because certain guys did (No. 25 jumped to mind) and thought that might be the topic for this week. But let those guys go. We're here today to praise those that earned our praise.
Are these guys the best of the best? Maybe a few. Doesn't really matter though.
In basketball I give you Willis Reed and John Havlicek with a big helping of Wes Unseld thrown in. Willis and Wes played against each other from the late 60s through the early 70s before Willis's Knicks' career ended far too early. Willis was talented but not by real comparison to some of his day. But his heart and his brains made you glad to be a Knick fan and make me still care about the team during these awful days of Isiah Thomas. For too many the memory of Willis is only his miraculous appearance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals (when he scored only the first 4 points of the game; a more important 4 points have never been scored.) But Willis was more than that. One memory probably violates many of the opinions already expressed in this blog. It's of Willis basically taking on almost the whole Los Angeles Lakers team in an on-court fight very early in his career that announced to the sports world that this team was not going to be pushed shoved and ignored. Probably the last fight Willis had on the court and if you saw it, you'd know why.
Havlicek still hasn't stopped running hustling, stealing the ball and playing it right and he hasn't been in the NBA since 1978. And Unseld played center for 13 seasons, giving away lots of inches and pounds and shooting skills but nothing in heart and brains.
Hockey's got a lot of guys like these and spending six years working closely with so many of those players, I can say that with certainty. But my Gwynn, my Willis, my Mattingly from hockey would have to include No. 4 of the Boston Bruins. Name needed? Bobby Orr. The single best athlete in his sport I ever saw. Better than Gretzky, better (again this is my opinion so hold the rifles) than Jordan, better even than Jim Brown. He dominated as an individual in a team sport and made his team and teammates better. Every night. Every game. But for far too few seasons.
I put Stevie Yzerman on this list, too, playing with dignity and skill and leadership while he waited and waited and waited for his team to get good enough to win a Stanley Cup. And then they did. Three times. No one, I mean no one, wasn't happy for Stevie Y.
Before you think this old guy blogger has no one from today's games, I give you Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne. Brodeur started great as the Devils goalie in 1993 and hasn't stopped. His consistency and attitude are pleasures still.
Quick story: late one season two of the reporters covering the Devils had a loud and public shouting match for all to see before a game. As the game was about to begin, the reporters, one male one female, were standing near the tunnel bringing the Devils onto the ice for a playoff game. Brodeur, leading his team out for his big game, wearing all of his goalie gear, mask already in place, stopped his march to the ice, pulled his mask up and waved a finger at the two warring correspondents; "Now, you two be nice." And then he went out and mastered his game.
Teemu arrived in the NHL with the single greatest rookie season a team athlete ever had (really: 76 goals, 76 assists but he did it in Winnipeg so you don't know about it). Then he hurt his knee and his speed diminished. But he got his game back, starred for the Mighty Ducks and then he got hurt again playing in San Jose and then later with Colorado. And he got his game back. He's an All-Star again this season playing back in Anaheim and he's playing at nearly a 50-goal pace. And this is 14 years after that amazing rookie season.
And since football's all we are really talking about (most of us at least) my picks for football: Johnny Unitas, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton (no, I'm not a Bears fan just a fan of their greatest running backs), Phil Simms and Harry Carson. I had thought LaDainian Tomlinson might make it but I'll put him to the side while deciding if his whiny act after losing to the Patriots last Sunday is a permanent disqualifier.
Who you got?