Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Top 10 Most Asterisk-Worthy Achievements In Sports History

So the New England Patriots, the Cheatriots, are now 18-0*, AFC Champions*, and in Super Bowl XLII.

But can we really believe anything they've done from 2001 onward is legit? They cheated. They got caught. They admitted it. Not "confessed"; that suggests that they feel guilty for it. They don't. They basically said, "Yeah, we did it, whaddaya gonna do about it, huh? Huh?" They were fined. Big deal.

So, at the very least, this past season goes by the boards, including the record-breaking seasons Tom Brady and Randy Moss had.

So what are the most "asterisk-worthy" achievements in sports history? I nominate these:

10. Pennsylvania State University: 1982 College Football National Champions. They finished 11-1 and beat Number 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Sounds legit, right?

Except Southern Methodist University finished 11-0-1. Penn State lost a game, SMU didn't. Of course, SMU got there thanks to recruiting violations, but are we really supposed to believe Ol' Ratface Paterno (Saint Joseph to some) has really been clean all these decades?

9. University of Notre Dame: 1966 College Football National Champions. They were undefeated, with a tie. So was Michigan State. And Notre Dame "played for the tie" when they played each other in one of those occasional Games of the Century.

So why was Notre Dame bumped from Number 2 to Number 1? Because they were Notre Freakin' Dame, that's why.

8. Norm Cash: 1961 American League batting title. Cash batted .361, 70 points higher than he'd ever batted before, or would after. Stormin' Norman later admitted he'd used a corked bat that season. That confession is enough to put it on the list.

7. Los Angeles Lakers: 2000 Western Conference Champions (and, by extension, 2000, 2001 and 2002 NBA Champions). Few teams have been robbed as much as were the Portland Trail Blazers in that Game 7. True, the Blazers did put themselves in that position by starting the collapse, but the referees could've stopped it by doing their jobs and treating Shaquille O'Neal like any other player. Would the Blazers have beaten the Indiana Pacers in the Finals? Would they then have beaten the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets in the next two Finals? Who knows.

What we do know is that this one helped start a dubious dynasty for the Fakers, even if it didn't start one for the Fail Blazers, who soon became the Jail Blazers. And we know that Kobe Bryant's never won a title without Shaq, and Shaq never wins a title without that officiating. And, without that officiating, Los Angeles hasn't won a World Championship in anything since the Lakers and Dodgers both won in 1988. (No, you can't count the WNBA's Sparks, and the Whatever They're Calling Themselves This Season Angels of Anaheim haven't played a home game in the City of Los Angeles since 1965.)

6. Lance Armstrong: 7 straight Tours de France. Sadly, steroids may have been necessary as part of his cancer treatment. But once you've recovered, there's no excuse. That other cyclists may also have been using them keeps this one from getting too high on the list.

5. Any major women's singles tennis title from the 1993 French Open through at least the 1994 U.S. Open: Steffi Graf in the '93 French, Wimbledon and U.S. Opens and the '94 Australian; Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario in the '94 French and U.S.; and Conchita Martinez at Wimbledon in '94.

It's likely that Monica Seles would have at least been in the Finals in each of these. Before April 30, 1993, when she was stabbed by a deranged German fan, wanting to insure wins for Graf, Seles had won the previous 2 U.S. Opens, the previous 3 French Opens and the previous 3 Australian Opens. Although she never won Wimbledon, she had reached the previous year's Final. In other words, she had won 7 of the preceding 9 majors, and 8 of the preceding 11. She was 19 years, 5 months old.

After the stabbing, her physical injury healed, but she was emotionally scarred. It took 2 years for her to compete again, and she won only 1 more major, the '96 Australian, and only reached 3 other major Finals, though she continued to win WTA singles events until a 2003 foot injury.

Although tennis is a sport where competitors, especially women, tend to burn out sooner than in the "major league" sports, Seles was essentially done at 25, and not due to a major injury. But the b@$+@rd who stabbed her, who for psychological reasons was denied any sort of punishment, got what he wanted: Seles was knocked out... for psychological reasons. Not that she was crazy, but because she didn't think she could both win and be safe anymore.

This was a damn shame, and who's to say that Monica would've stopped with the '94 U.S.? She could have gone on even longer, much as Martina Navratilova did.

4. Brigham Young University: 1984 College Football National Champions. Yes, they were undefeated. But they played in the Western Athletic Conference. Had they played one of the champions of the conferences with the bowl tie-ins, such as Number 2 Washington or Number 3 Oklahoma, Robbie Bosco and company would have been shredded.

In fact, in the bowl game their WAC Title tied them into, they played Michigan, who was just 6-5 and probably shouldn't even have been in a bowl that year, and only won 24-17. If Washington had just beaten UCLA to win the Pac-10 -- the Bruins were Pac-10 Champs at 6-1 in the league, even though they were 6-5 overall going into the bowls -- who would've picked BYU over U-Dub? Not me.

3. University of Colorado: 1990 College Football National Champions. They finished 11-1-1. Since they started waiting until after the bowl games to award the National Championship, no team that ended with more than 1 non-winning game had ever been awarded it (and hardly any had before it). And one of those 11 wins was the dubious "Fifth Down Game" against Missouri.

Besides, Georgia Tech went 11-0-1. They didn't lose. Was the Big Eight then that much better than the Atlantic Coast Conference? Even though that was the last year before Florida State joined the ACC, the answer was No.

2. New York Giants (baseball): 1951 National League Pennant. Even if Bobby Thomson didn't specifically benefit from knowing that Ralph Branca was going to throw him a fastball -- come on, it was Ralph Branca, he only had a fastball -- the Giants' amazing stretch run was due to the sign-stealing.

This gets really high on the list because it decided a Pennant and because, for the most part, the secret was kept for half a century.

1. Barry Bonds: 73 home runs in a season, and 762 in a career. The worst part is, he didn't need steroids. Had he just stayed clean, he probably would've ended up with around 600 homers, 4th all-time (among clean players, anyway) and would be an easy choice for the Hall. Now, he may not get in at all.

Dishonorable Mention, as they're somewhat connected: Mark McGwire hitting 70, 65 and 58 in a season, and 583 in his career; Sammy Sosa hitting 66, 63 and 60 in a season, and 604 in his career; and Rafael Palmeiro hitting 569 home runs, and collecting over 3,000 hits. All invalid due to steroids.

As for Roger Clemens, if there is a revelation of a positive test, then his post-Boston achievements should also be wiped from the books.

Not that any of these will be wiped from the books. Or will even receive an asterisk.

And here's five achievements that often get the asterisk treatment, but shouldn't (in chronological order):

1. Cincinnati Reds: 1975 World Champions. No, Ed Armbrister did not interfere with Carlton Fisk in Game 3. And even if he did, all Fisk had to do was tag him out to remove all doubt as to him being out. Then Fisk's home run would've won Game 6 and the Series, and then think how many times we'd have seen that clip replayed. Got it replayed, and we all know why... 'Scuse me, while I roll my eyes.

2. New York Yankees: 1978 World Champions. After Reggie Jackson's "hip-check," the Los Angeles Dodgers were still winning, and had a better chance to win the game, and the World Series, than did the Yankees. That the Dodgers didn't is partly because of Tommy Lasorda's meltdown; and partly because the Yankees, as they were the year before, were just... better.

3. Houston Rockets: 1994 and 1995 NBA Champions. The point is that Michael Jordan wasn't around in '94, and that he wasn't "all the way back" in '95.

So if he wasn't "retired," but just hurt, would you still put the asterisk on it? The Rockets were a very good team in '94, and with the addition of Clyde Drexler, they were a great team in '95, sweeping the Shaq-Penny Orlando Magic. Do the '94 Knicks and '95 Magic get asterisks for beating the Bulls, as both had to in the Playoffs? They shouldn't, and neither should the Rockets.

4. New York Yankees: 1996 American League Champions (and, by definition, 1996 World Champions): The Baltimore Orioles had Armando Benitez on the mound. And Derek Jeter's home run only tied the game. After that, the Orioles had an equal chance to win that game. And the O's dropped all three games at home in that ALCS.

To blame a 12-year-old kid (okay, he was almost 13) for your team losing the Pennant to a team that already beat you for the Division Title is the sourest of grapes. Besides, I have a feeling the Atlanta Braves would've beaten the O's anyway. They very nearly beat the Yankees, and might have swept the O's.

5. Dallas Stars: 1999 Stanley Cup Champions. Even if Brett Hull's winning goal had been waved off, the game would still have been tied. And if the Sabres had managed to win it, they still had to play a Game 7 in Dallas.

The goal should have been waved off, but that's no reason to say the Stars were unfairly awarded the Cup. Just because a team is from Dallas doesn't mean they're completely unworthy...

Okay, maybe they're mostly unworthy. But you still gotta love Mark Cuban and his Mavericks, and as a New Jerseyan, I simply cannot take Penn State over SMU in '82.

Disagree with any of these? Got any better suggestions? Send 'em in, and I may revise this list.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Goooooooose! And Other Hall of Fame Notes

September 3, 1978. Yankee Stadium. Yankees vs. Seattle Mariners, then a second-year expansion team and in last place in the AL West. Yanks trying desperately to close the gap on the Red Sox in the AL East, with a big four-game series at Fenway Park coming up the following weekend.

Catfish Hunter cruises through eight innings, up 4-1. But he tires in the ninth, the M's get to 4-3, and Catfish loads the bases. Bob Lemon brings in a relief pitcher. Public-address announcer Bob Sheppard makes the announcement:

"Your attention please... ladies and gentlemen... coming in to pitch... for the Yankees... Number 54... Rich... Gossage... Number 54... "

Richard Michael Gossage, already known as the Goose, had been signed as a free agent after a pretty good first few years with the Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. He was awful earlier in the year, and while he's since settled down, Yankee Fans aren't yet comfortable with him. And this is a tough situation, and the Yankees need all the wins they can get.

Here's how Phil Rizzuto described the last pitches to the next 3 batters on Channel 11, WPIX:

"Struck him out!"

"Struck him out!"

"Struck him out! Holy cow! Unbelievable!"

The Goose strikes out the side on 12 pitches, the Stadium erupts in cheers, and Yankee Fans love him from that moment on.

The Yanks inch closer to the Red Sox, and the Goose gets the last 7 outs of the Bucky Dent Playoff game against the Red Sox, the last outs of the Pennant against the Kansas City Royals, and the last outs of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Hall of Fame is a long overdue honor for the native of Colorado Springs, who, along with Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter (both of whom got in before him), defined relief pitching in the 1970s and early 1980s.

And, with his election this year, it's possible he might be the last Yankee to receive a plaque to go into the old Monument Park, before Yankee Stadium closes in the fall. Maybe he'll even be the American League's Honorary Captain at the All-Star Game. New HOFers and home-team stars are usually so honored, and he's both.

UPDATED: He had to wait until 2014, but he has gotten his Monument Park Plaque.


As for the players who missed election this year... would I have voted for them?

Jim Rice: No. And not because he was a Red Sock who hit my Yankees. A guy with his power and the Green Monster to hit toward should have more than 382 career home runs. He had four great years (1977, '78, '79, '83), 10 very good years, and that was pretty much it. Put simply, from age 22 to 26, and again from 29 to 33, he was one of the scariest hitters in the game; at 27, 28, 34 and 35, he was a very good hitter; at 36 he was practically invisible, and after that he was done.

They said that all this talk about steroids makes Rice look better, because he didn't use steroids. The thing is, though, with his early burst, downgrade, then renewal of power, and then dramatic dropoff and late injuries, he actually fits the steroid profile. I'm not accusing him, just pointing out the match. As we say here in the New York Tri-State Area, "I'm just sayin'."

He also was one of the slowest runners of his time, and was, at best, an average left fielder. His teammate Dwight Evans was one of the best defensive right fielders ever, and actually ended up with more career home runs, 385. Yet where is the outcry for Evans? If Rice belongs, then so does Evans; if Evans does not, Rice is hard to justify.

One final point, then I'll move on to the others: If I had told you during the Bucky Dent Playoff game that, 30 years later, neither Rice, nor Evans, nor center fielder Fred Lynn would be in the Hall of Fame, you'd have asked me what I was smoking. Yet Rice has been denied, Evans has barely been considered, and injuries turned Lynn from a guy with Carl Yastrzemski-like stats into a guy with Shawn Green-like stats, and who supports Green for future Halldom?

UPDATE: Rice was elected in 2009.

Andre Dawson: Yes. He hit 438 homers despite playing half his career in the cavernous Montreal Olympic Stadium, collected almost 2,800 hits, and won eight Gold Gloves despite aching knees. If he'd played his whole career in Chicago, with their media spotlight, rather than just six seasons, he'd be in, just like Billy Williams, whom Baseball-Reference.com says is the player most statistically resembling Andre, and who had fewer homers and hits, and has hardly anyone questioning the justice of his election.

UPDATE: Dawson was elected in 2010.

Bert Blyleven: Yes. No contest. He was third all-time in strikeouts when he hung 'em up. He won 287 games. He won World Series games and pitched for Series winners in both leagues, the '79 Pirates and the '87 Minnesota Twins, going 5-1 in postseason play. This guy was 17-5 at age 38. Why is he not in? It is the 250 career losses? Hey, you try pitching 11 years for the Twins and five for the Cleveland Indians, and see if you make it to 287 wins! The guy went 19-7 for the '84 Tribe, for cryin' out loud! That's like going 24-4 for a good team!

So he gave up a World Series-winning homer to Mark Grace. So what? He was 39, and besides, it was just a movie! (Taking Care of Business, starring Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin, with Joe Torre as a broadcaster.) Put the Dutch Master in.

UPDATE: Blyleven was elected in 2011.

Lee Smith: No. In fact, the best reason for voting him in is no longer there: He's no longer the all-time saves leader. Maybe the home run he gave up to Steve Garvey to lose Game 4 of the 1984 NLCS is what's keeping him out. A Cub Pennant might have made the difference. Yeah, right: You wanna see the Cubs in the World Series, go rent Taking Care of Business. It's actually a good movie.

Jack Morris: Yes. The winningest pitcher of the 1980s. He won World Series with three different teams, the 1984 Detroit Tigers, the '91 Twins and the '92 Toronto Blue Jays. The guy pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 in '91. Who's got the guts to pitch that today? What manager has the gets to let his pitcher try it? He had control, he had courage, and he won. What more do you want? A career ERA under 4.00? His career ERA+ was 105, so it's not like he was lesser than the league as a whole.

Tommy John: Yes. And that's not just a "Yankee Fan's pick," since he spent a good chunk of his career with the hated L.A. O'Malley Bums. He won 288 games, pitched in four World Series (though never won one), had three 20-win seasons (one at age 37) and didn't walk batters. And that's before you honor him for being willing to undergo the pioneering elbow surgery that now bears his name.

If William "Candy" Cummings is in for inventing the curveball (a possibly dubious claim), and little else (a good pitcher by the standards of the 1870s, but he was washed up at age 28), T.J. should be in for being a consistent winner from age 22 to 45.

Tim Raines: Yes. The best leadoff hitter in National League history, 800 stolen bases (only four have more), and a very good fielder. Like his teammate in the Expo outfield, Dawson, had to go to Chicago (in his case, the White Sox) to get noticed. Unlike Dawson, actually played in a World Series -- two, in fact, for the 1996 and '98 Yankees. They both belong.

And finally...

Mark McGwire: No. And we all know why. You see, Mark, there are a lot of things that baseball fans like to talk about. And, very often, we ARE here to talk about the past.

Now, if the Veterans' Committee can get around to putting in Gil Hodges...

Monday, January 7, 2008

On Second Thought, Yeah, He's Heavy, AND He's My Pitcher

I was out last night, and because CBS' NFL Playoff coverage ran long, I didn't get the 60 Minutes Roger Clemens interview on tape.

Who cares about a football game between San Diego and Nashville, anyway? A sliver of Southern California, the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee (the Memphis third hates Nashville, and vice versa), and maybe a few people in Kentucky who like football and a few in Alabama who hadn't drunk the Atlanta Kool-Aid that makes people think the Braves were still "The Team of the '90s" and that Michael Vick got a raw deal.

Not that those are necessarily bad places, but 60 Minutes had not just the Clemens interview, but one with Pervez Musharraf, the first since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Ultimately, that was more important than one NFL wild-card football game.

So what if it was LaDanian Tomlinson vs. Vince Young? Well, they're both great players, at least neither has been accused of steroid use.

Anyway... Now having seen some of the text of the interview...

Way to go, Roger. Talking as if baseball owes you something, as if you're bigger than the game, is a one-way ticket to Palookaville, as old-timers might say.

Pete Rose thought he was bigger than the game. Barry Bonds acted as though he thought he was bigger than the game. The players that New York area baseball fans have liked the most through the years -- around here, guys like Gehrig, Rizzuto, Berra, Mantle, Mattingly, Jeter; Mays, Hodges, Seaver, Franco, Piazza, Wright -- have looked like they're aware that the game is bigger than they are, that the game made them what they are, and that, whatever they have given back, it can never truly be enough.

Note that I did not include DiMaggio and even my guy, Reggie Jackson, who each went both ways on this issue at times. Nor most of the '86 Mets. Even a beloved player like Duke Snider admitted that he played the game mainly for the money it made him. I also didn't include Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson, simply because those two, perhaps alone in baseball history, really were bigger than the game, though Jackie never and the Babe hardly ever (but not always) acted like it.

I'm reminded of an episode of M*A*S*H where crazy Army "intelligence" officer Colonel Flagg (played by Edward Winter) tries to enlist Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) in finding evidence that Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) is a secret Communist agent.

No friend of Hawkeye, Charles lists a bunch of Hawkeye's faults, and tells Flagg, "But that makes him obnoxious. It doesn't make him a spy." And Flagg says, "Doesn't wash! I'm obnoxious, and I'm a spy!" And Charles says, "Touche."

The point is, Clemens is obnoxious. He is a blowhard. He is a braggart. (Can't imagine why the guys filming the movie Cobb, with Tommy Lee Jones as Ty, wanted Clemens to play the Philadelphia Athletics pitcher with the similarly bad attitude.)

But that doesn't make him a steroid user. A positive test makes him a steroid user, and if there's one out there, no one's said so.

Are they waiting to catch him in a perjury trap? Maybe, but that's the only excuse not to play that hand. But until such a test is revealed, I'm going to say, "Innocent until proven guilty," and until such a test is revealed, there's no proof.

Citing Clemens' 1990 Playoff meltdown, as some have done, is not helping the "Roger used steroids" cause. That happened well before the accusatory usage began. His occasional lapses of tact, or even of sanity? That's not steroids, that's his personality. Even Red Sox fans, who still think of him as Anakin Skywalker having become Darth Vader, or the Alger Hiss or even the Judas Iscariot of baseball, would agree with that.

Here's my idea of what to do with him: Give him his Hall of Fame plaque. No ceremony in Cooperstown. Just give it to him, and say, "Here it is. You earned it, mostly. Now go away. And never take part in professional baseball again, and don't bother us anymore."

Just the election and induction. No number retirement -- here, in Boston, or in Houston. No plaque in the new stadium's Monument Park. No acceptance speech -- please, God, not that. (The prospect of listening to an acceptance speech may be the biggest reason of all not to elect Pete Rose to the Hall.)

Can Roger Clemens be defended? Yes. Should we want to? I can only answer that for myself. My answer is, only to the extent that anyone who tries to say that what the Yankees won with him -- 4 Pennants, 2 World Series, one over The Other Team -- remains legitimate and untainted.

I wonder... Did Maurice Richard, the greatest offensive force the game of hockey had ever known until Wayne Gretzky came along, object to another athlete having his nickname, the Rocket? Richard was similar, right down to the occasional loss of his temper. But nobody ever suggested he cheated. If he ever did object to Clemens' use of the nickname "Rocket," could this be his revenge from beyond the grave?