Things I liked in the ’00s: Sports

I cut back my sports interest throughout the ’00s. I also stopped writing my Yankees blog, because I couldn’t keep up — working nights was a major issue in this.
Now, I don’t work nights, but I also can’t get the YES Network. Besides, I don’t know if I can add unique perspectives. In person, over a beer? Sure. In an analytical or poetic form online? Nah.
But that’s OK. I still follow baseball closely, and I follow the NFL fairly well, especially once baseball’s over. Everything else is hit or miss, though — with the exception of live hockey. That’s fantastic.
Why is this? I think a lot of it has to do with my running college cross country. I enjoyed it, and remember it fondly, but I was ready for a break when it ended. Plus, my own competition and that of my teammates seemed a lot more important than that of millionaire strangers
Everything else just reverted to being a game.

But there was still a lot for me to like. The following is but a glimpse.

  • “Chokers” winning. Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one. Until he did. Phil Mickelson was the perpetual runner-up — until he won three majors. The Red Sox and White Sox were cursed — then they weren’t. Kobe couldn’t without Shaq…oh. Alex Rodriguez — you know the drill. This was the decade of redemption, even as “true champions” such as Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Tim Duncan and Derek Jeter also won championship after championship.
    Keep in mind, I say this as someone who was sure Peyton was legitimately a choker. And I’m obviously not a Red Sox fan. But redemption is not only good for the soul, it eliminates the whines of the victorious fanbases. 
    • Sergio Garcia still choking. He says he’s just cursed. Whatever. Maybe the ’10s will be your time. Sure.
  • Great Super Bowls. For much of its history, the Super Bowl has been a rather shitty affair. Let’s just be honest (and crude). Unless the Steelers and Cowboys, or the 49ers and Bengals, squared off, it was a likely blowout. All that changed when the Tennessee Titans fell a yard short of overtime against the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 30, 2000. It may be the best Super Bowl ever. It’s certainly memorable.
    Not every game has gone well. Ravens-Giants and Bucs-Raiders were over pretty quickly, and Steelers-Seahawks is not one I’ll regret not being able to watch. But surrounding those were the nailbiters of three Patriots wins, David Tyree’s ridiculous catch, and this year’s Pittsburgh-Arizona matchup, in which a sloppy game was redeemed by an astonishing fourth quarter.
    The biggest spectacle in TV actually tried to live up its billing in the ’00s. How about that?
  • Baseball’s decade of scandal. Or rather, a decade of scandal like every other. The 2000s, if nothing else, at least revealed how full of it most of us were during the 1990s and a good deal of the 1980s. Why did I like it? Well, there was some great ball being played, and steroids — among many other issues — needed to be addressed eventually. That’s the silver lining.
    Going forward, we’ll need to resolve the uncertainties this decade left us — namely, how much do we really hate substance use, or at least that which improves performance? And that answer may help tell us this: What is Albert Pujols? He’s not clean or dirty. He’s an unknown.
    Other baseball likes:
    • The return of balance to the game by 2009: Nobody’s complaining that good hitting has gone away. But in the last few years of the decade, there were phenomenal pitching performances, and not just from individuals. Playoff baseball became the place for sluggers to (mostly) fail, and defense and baserunning propelled losers to brief glory (the Rays) and dashed the hopes of teams too arrogant to care (the clumsy Twins and Angels of 2009 and Tigers of 2006, the lazy A’s and Mets of 2000, every Yankees team from 2004-08). 
    • Real parity. For all the cry of parity in the NFL, 14 of 30 teams comprised the 20 spots in the World Series during the ’00s, while 23 of 30 made the playoffs and 21 won a series. The seven organizations that made no showing– the Royals, Pirates, Expos/Nationals, Reds, Blue Jays, Orioles and Rangers — are occasionally unlucky, but mostly inept. That’s how it should be.
    • Pitching is not just for the young, even as Tim Lincecum is the latest young mound-taking phenom. Jamie Moyer has pitched into his late 40s, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will be/are closing during their 40s, while the over-35 pitcher in general was no longer such a bad thing. But it’s not like hitting went away. Ichiro slapped singles at a rate unheard of, Albert Pujols was his own fantasy team, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez and others lifted towering shots at fantastic rates.
    • 300 wins being (briefly) commonplace: In a century where no one was ever to win 300 games except maybe Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, we also saw Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson do it.
    • Mariano Rivera. One of the only athletes with whom it’s OK to gush, because he’s a true American hero — he wins, and wins often, but has lost just enough to endear himself to us. Beyond that, he’s so damn genuinely humble that it’s left to us to brag about him. The greatest of his kind. Remember that when he hangs ’em up.
    • This exchange between Al Leiter and Michael Kay during a Yankees TV broadcast, circa August 2007: Michael: Correct me if I’m wrong. Al: Oh, I will.
  • The endings for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. Both men left the game, relatively on their own terms, without a real hint of scandal and were recognized in their time for their legendary abilities.
    With Ripken, it was changing the position, allowing big shortstops to play, even though he and Derek Jeter are the only two big shortstops to be durable and (probably) steroid-free. And of course, it was superhuman grit, toughness and determination while not being a complete jerk off the field.
    Gwynn, of course, is the most skilled pure hitter since Ted Williams — hitting .368/.412/.508 from ages 33 to 37. He stole bases and almost never struck out. Plus, he’s a hell of a lot nicer than Williams was.
  • LeBron James. Most of the time, it’s debatable if he’s even the true best player in the league. But he’s the most important. He does magical things on the court, and he gets people talking. People like me, who hadn’t had a non-Michael Jordan-related NBA conversation since the mid-1990s before LeBron came along. And since nobody thinks he’s the perfect human being, hopefully he can survive his Tiger Woods moment, if and when it comes.
    • Kobe Bryant, sort of: I mean, the guy is a rapist cheating creep, at least. But he turned into a hell of a complete player, perfecting an array of jumpers in the past few years. He truly is closer to Jordan than we ever could have expected — and maybe, in some ways, off the court, too.
      • Tiger Woods name-checking Kobe, as in “I have to run to Zales to get a ‘Kobe Special.'” It’s uncertain if he really said that. I hope to God he did.
  • Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The only tennis that matters, really, and the two tournaments that deliver excitement, thrills and top-ranked players year after damn year. In the 2000s, probably the worst decade for tennis in the American eye, we had Sampras. We had Agassi. We had Federer and Nadal, Roddick, Andy Murray, Hewitt and Safin. Even Goran Invanisevic won Wimbledon in 2000, somehow becoming a fan favorite that year. On the women’s side, it was the Williams sisters, with most men hoping Sharapova would make it to the finals, Henin and a few others. The men’s matchups were generally better because the 5-set affair is inherently more exciting, and they were not just good for their time, but for all time. Tennis was a watercooler subject when these tourneys came around. In this century, that’s the best news the sport has.
    • Martina Hingis, coke user. It was just so weird, it made me chuckle. That’s all I’ve got on that.
  • Multiple OT in playoff hockey. The announcers love it, the players appear to like it, and you can’t turn away for an instant, lest you miss the decider. Pro football is a tedious, unfair sport in overtime, while basketball doesn’t have urgency and baseball often feels long enough already. Hockey’s greatest drama, at least to non-serious fans like myself, comes when regulation is past.