Monday, December 21, 2009

Top 10 Athletes of 2000-2009

I did kind of leave things hanging in my last post, so here goes: The Devils beat the Ottawa Senators on Friday night, 4-2. This despite my mother, a.k.a. the Curse of Belleville, being in the building for the whole game. Goals were scored by Captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo, and, believe it or not, Bryce Salvador.

It was Martin Brodeur's 1,030th appearance as an NHL goaltender, breaking the record he briefly shared with Montreal superstar Patrick Roy; and his 579th win as an NHL goaltender, extending the record he took from Roy last season at 551; but not, as I'd hoped, his 104th shutout, which would have broken the record he currently shares with legendary Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk.

The Devils are the only NHL team about whom it can be seriously suggested that their greatest player ever is a goalie. And these accomplishments, which get the taunts of "Marrrr-teeee!" from the idiotic Ranger fans answered with "Marty's better!" (seriously, when is Queen Henrietta Lundqvist going to backstop a Stanley Cup winner?), make Brodeur a serious candidate for The Top 10 Athletes of 2000-2009.


We never did find an appropriate nickname for this decade, did we? In the preceding century, we had the Roaring Twenties, the Dirty Thirties, the Fighting Forties, the Fabulous Fifties, the Sensational Sixties, the Silly Seventies, the Idiotic Eighties (Reagan, metal, and the Yankees didn't win a World Series; so, yes, they were idiotic) and the Naughty Nineties.

Time magazine called 2000-09 "The Decade From Hell." True that: A Presidential election (possibly two) stolen by a damn fool who gave us the worst Presidential Administration since the Civil War, combining Nixon's ethics, LBJ's warmaking ability and Hoover's economics; the 9/11 attacks, which said Administration didn't lift a bloody finger to prevent; our nation thus forced into one war we had to fight but really didn't, and used as an excuse to lie us into another war we really didn't have to fight but did; a nasty recession that began in 2001 and, for the bottom 99 percent of earners, never really ended and became a near-depression by late 2008; some awful music, movies and TV shows (though a few gems snuck in), and then there was the sports.

Who were the defining sports figures of the decade? Alex Rodriguez: Cheater, although there's no evidence he was one with the Yankees, unless you ask Cynthia. Roger Clemens: Asshole, and possibly also Cheater, although the proof, if there is any, has never been publicly revealed. David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling of the Red Sox: Cheater; Cheater and Asshole; Asshole and probably also Cheater. Barry Bonds: We knew he was an Asshole long before we even suspected, let alone knew, that he was a Cheater.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady: Cheater, and Beneficiary of said Cheating. Brett Favre: Egomaniac who doesn't know when to get off the stage, and the way he's strung teams, players and fans along, I think he rises to the level of Asshole. Terrell Owens: Egomaniac and Asshole.

Shaquille O'Neal: Egomaniac, although not rising to the level of Asshole, but you can't tell anyone outside of Southern California that at least 1 and possibly all 4 of his rings didn't come as the result of a fix. Kobe Bryant: Egomaniac, Asshole, and by his own admission he did something wrong that goes beyond simply violating his wedding vows. Sidney Crosby: Cheater. (Yes, diving is cheating.) Eldrick Woods: The Tiger is a Tomcat.

Not one of these individuals will end up on my Top 10 list. Besides, Tiger Woods is not an athlete. Golf is not a sport.

Anyway, here I go:

The Top 10 Athletes of 2000-2009

10. Serena Williams. I could make this a joint entry with her sister Venus -- after all, Venus has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 5 Wimbledons and 2 U.S. Opens -- but Serena has accomplished more. She has won 9 majors, including all 4 of them at least once: The U.S. and Australian 3 each, Wimbledon twice and the French once. She has a better record in major Finals than Venus: 9-3 as opposed to 7-6. And, head-to-head, Serena has been better.

It is now safe to say that she is one of the Top 5 female tennis players ever, along with Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Helen Wills and Steffi Graf; and that Venus is one of the Top 10, adding also Chris Evert, Margaret Court, Monica Seles and Suzanne Lenglen.

9. Bernard Hopkins. Somebody, in a bad decade for the sport, had to be the best boxer of the decade. "The Executioner" was, for all intents and purposes, Middleweight Champion of the World for 10 years. He beat Felix Trinidad. He beat Oscar De La Hoya (when doing so still meant something). He beat Antonio Tarver. And he beat Kelly Pavlik. That record is pretty strong.

8. Albert Pujols. Lifetime batting average, .334 -- highest among active players, including Ichiro Suzuki; higher than Stan Musial, Rod Carew and Wade Boggs. On-base percentage, .427 -- trailing by just .0002 only Todd Helton among active players, and higher than Musial and Mickey Mantle. Slugging percentage, .628 -- 4th all-time, trailing only Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. OPS, 1.055 -- also 4th, trailing only the Babe, the Splendid Splinter and the Iron Horse. OPS+, 172 -- meaning he is 72 percent better than the average major league hitter over the span of his career; 7th all-time, behind Ruth, Williams, the tainted Bonds, Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and slightly behind Mantle. Hits, 1,717. Home runs, 366 -- more than Joe DiMaggio, and nearly as many as Ralph Kiner and Johnny Bench. RBIs, 1,112 -- and his lowest total has been 103! He struck out 93 times in his first season, but hasn't topped 70 since. He's won a Gold Glove. In 9 seasons in the majors, he's never missed an All-Star Game. He's already won 3 MVP awards, 2 Pennants and the 2006 World Series, so he's got both individual and team success.

He's already a serious candidate for the title of greatest 1st baseman in National League history. And he doesn't turn 30 until next month. If he plays as long as did Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, we would be watching Phat Albert crush the horsehide until 2022. He could become, career-wise, the greatest offensive force the game has ever known except for Babe Ruth. For a generation who never saw DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Brooks Robinson or even George Brett, Pujols is Number 5.

7. Peyton Manning. The decade's top quarterback should be here. And it's not Tom Brady (beneficiary of cheating), nor Ben Roethlisberger (only around for half the decade), nor Kurt Warner (ditto, though not in the same way), nor Donovan McNabb (gotta win a title), nor Brett Favre (his title was 13 years ago -- believe it), nor Tony Romo (just wanted to see if you were still paying attention).

At the rate Peyton is going, most of Johnny Unitas' records, which became Fran Tarkenton's records, which became Dan Marino's records, which are now Favre's records, will become his records. Not since Joe Montana has any NFL quarterback "cut that meat" like Peyton.

Granted, he has "only" one Super Bowl win (in fact, only 1 appearance), but in 2 seasons the Indianapolis Colts lost in the Playoffs to the New England Patriots, and how can we believe those Pats wins weren't the result of cheating?

As I write this, the Colts are 14-0, with their last 2 games at home against the New York Jets and at the Buffalo Bills, which means 16-0 is very possible; and they have the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs, so they have an excellent chance at closing the old decade/starting the new decade with another title. If that happens, I will move Manning up on this list.

6. Tim Duncan. I'm not sure if he's the most virtuous player in the NBA, but he often seems like it. The San Antonio Spurs have never reached the NBA Finals without him; with him, they are 4-0. (One was before the decade began, but, still.) In a decade dominated by Shaq and Kobe, what they did together, what they tried to do apart, and their various excesses (Shaq's were silly, Kobe's were serious), and by the as-yet-unrealized hype around LeBron James, Duncan should have been the face of the NBA.

5. Martin Brodeur. He has appeared in more games, played more minutes, and won more games than any NHL goaltender ever. One more shutout, and he'll have more than any other. He has won 3 Stanley Cups, 2 in this decade, and each time he should have been given the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP. (Seriously, the guy has 3 shutouts in the Finals, and they give the Smythe to the goalie of the losing team?) Internationally, he was the starting goalie on the 1st team from his country to win an Olympic Gold Medal in half a century.

If he's not the best goalie ever, he's on the short list for that title, with Roy, Sawchuk and Jacques Plante. And hockey goalie is the hardest position in sports, harder than catcher in baseball, harder than quarterback in football. Don't even think that goalkeeper in soccer is harder: A hockey puck comes in a lot harder and faster than a soccer ball.

4. Roger Federer. His 15 majors are the most of any male tennis player, and he's right up there with former record-holder Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver for serious consideration as the best man ever to play the sport. (Martina still tops 'em all, though, regardless of gender, era or surface.)

3. Michael Phelps. 14 Olympic Gold Medals. 6 in 2004, 8 in 2008. Great individualist and great relayist. (Or "team player," if you prefer.) He rocks the joint. Uh, that might be a bad choice of words... But then, the other serious candidate for the title of best swimmer ever doesn't exactly have the most graceful of names: Mark Spitz.

2. Thierry Henry. Along with Pele, George Best and Johan Cruyff, he is on the short list for the title of greatest soccer player who ever lived. (No, not Diego Maradona. Puh, lease.) League titles in France with AS Monaco in 1997 (the casino-driven tiny nation has a team that plays in France's Ligue 1), in England with Arsenal in 2002 and 2004, and in Spain with Barcelona in 2009. National cups with Arsenal in 2002, '03 and '05; and with Barcelona in '09. A Champions League title with Barcelona in '09. "The Double" (winning the Premier League and the FA Cup) with Arsenal in 2004, and "The Treble" (La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League) with Barcelona in 2009. 

Although his lone World Cup win with France came in the preceding decade, in 1998, he did lead them to the European Championship in 2000. Individually, he was a 4-time Premiership leading scorer, a 2-time European leading scorer, a 2-time PFA Players' Player of the Year, a 5-time French Player of the Year, Arsenal's all-time leading goalscorer, and was voted Arsenal's all-time greatest player (covering 1886 to 2008), and the all-time favorite player in the (as-yet-brief, 1992 to 2008) history of the Premier League.

Not to mention that great video he made with Spanish actress Paz Vega. (YouTube it, you will not be disappointed.)

1. Derek Jeter. Oh, how predictable, you must be saying. Only 2 rings and no MVPs, you must be saying. He can't play shortstop anymore, you must be saying.

Here's what I say: Nobody won more games in the decade. In. Any. Sport. Predictable, because he is the signature player -- perhaps of the last 40 years -- on my favorite team in all of sports? Yeah, he is.

Only 2 rings? And how many others could he have won if not for cheating? Look at the teams that beat the Yankees out, either in the regular season or the postseasons: The 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks with Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams; the 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2006 Detroit Tigers with Ivan Rodriguez; the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez (and that's just the two that were caught, how many others are still being protected?).

It doesn't mean the Yankees would have beaten Pujols' St. Louis Cardinals in 2004 or 2006, or Helton's Coloardo Rockies in 2007. (As far as I know, they were clean, as were the other teams to beat the Yankees in the decade: The 2002 and 2005 Anaheim Angels, and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays). But, surely, there would have been at least one more title, and then this wouldn't have looked like such a homer pick.

Besides, it's my list. You don't like it? Make your own. Just make sure you don't put any cheaters on it.

Or golfers. When Tiger Woods faces a ball not sitting on a tee, but coming at him at 98 MPH from Josh Beckett; or when he attempts to drive with Ray Lewis bearing down on him; or when he has Shaq or Marty guarding the hole he's trying to putt into, then you can call him an athlete. Until then, nobody's saying that a golfer who doesn't make the cut at Augusta is "off playing baseball"; but come late April, the New York Rangers (who suck) will be "off playing golf."


AJ said...

Came across your blog using the 'Next Blog' button and saw your list. Nice list but couple questions.

Seems you are against egomaniacs and assholes but put Serena #10. Serena is both. Never gives credit to opponents when she loses (always she lost, injury, some other factor) and clearly the US Open incident threatening a line judge is a huge black mark. How come she is more worthy than other egomaniacs and assholes to make the list?

You say Jeter may have more rings if not for cheaters but how do you justify counting 2000 in Jeter's favor when the Yankees roster had Pettitte, Jose Canseco, and Clemens (certainly more dirty than Schilling at this point proof wise and you named him) on it? If it wasn't for cheaters, couldn't he easily have less titles than more?

Uncle Mike said...

AJ, you're treating Serena Williams as if she were John McEnroe. Or Jimmy Connors. Or the original bad boy of tennis, Ilie Nastase. She is not. Yes, she shouldn't have said what she said that day, but she did have a point: The judge got it wrong. (Come to think of it, so did a lot of the judges Mac whined to.)

Anybody who thinks the Yankees' title of 2000 was not legitimate is overlooking a few things. Canseco didn't even play in that postseason, and was a nonfactor in the Yanks getting into it. All we have on Pettitte is something brief from 2002, a year when the Yankees did not win a Pennant. Clemens? He's not worth defending, so consider this a defense of the team rather than the man: No proof has ever been publicly revealed.

Besides, what about the Yanks' opponents in the 2000 World Series, the Mets? Mike Piazza? And you can't tell me that Edgardo Alfonzo's disappearing act not long thereafter isn't suspicious. And whatever happened to Benny Agbayani? Timo Perez? How did Mike Hampton pick up so many injuries?

A fairer rap on Jeter is that he should have exposed any teammates he knew to be using. But then, we don't know what he knew. He may not have been aware of any of it. Look how long it took Papi and Manny to be exposed.