Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Best New York Athletes Since 1968

New York Magazine marks its 40th anniversary this week with a jam-packed issue. There are hits and misses, but plenty of bang for the buck overall. The sports nerd in me was especially interested to see five "experts" pick the top 10 New York athletes of the past 40 years. As someone who's spent about 27 of those years following (and about 15 years attending) New York sporting events, I have my own two cents to contribute, below. Absent from my list -- and present on all five lists in the magazine -- is Joe Namath. I wasn't around during Joe's glory days, but from what I can tell from his record, he's one of the most overrated athletes of all time. Take away his Super Bowl win and his New York-driven persona, and there's not an awful lot there. So, my list:

10. Mark Messier

A Hall of Famer who came to the New York Rangers -- a team with maybe the most rabid following in the city -- and eventually led the team to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

9. Mike Bossy

As Jeremy Schaap puts it in the magazine (he also has Bossy at #9), “If he’d led the Rangers rather than the Islanders, he’d be ubiquitous.” Bossy anchored the Islanders dynasty that won four Stanley Cups in a row (bumper stickers reading “The Drive for Five” were ubiquitous when I was growing up on Long Island). He scored 50 goals or more in nine consecutive seasons, still a record. He played only 10 years because of injuries, but he’s one of the best ever.

8. Reggie Jackson

Hard to believe he only played five years with the Yankees, but they were big years. He helped drive two championship teams, including his legendary performance in the 1977 World Series. He hit three home runs in the series-clinching Game 6 that year. Even more incredible: All of those home runs came on the first pitch, and he’d hit a first-pitch home run in his last at bat in Game 5. His last four swings of that series resulted in homers.

7. Patrick Ewing

Unlike Walt "Clyde" Frazier (who was the last to miss the cut on my list), Ewing never won a championship, but then again, he had Michael Jordan’s Bulls to contend with for most of his prime. He helped some average Knicks teams overachieve, and as a gentle giant his lack of a title just makes him a more sympathetic character. A rare New York athlete (like Don Mattingly) who’s beloved despite his lack of hardware. I was at a Knicks game soon after he retired, and the camera picked him up near courtside during a timeout. As the crowd noticed his image on the screen, the cheers grew louder, and then louder, and then, impossibly, louder. It was one of the four or five most electrifying moments I've witnessed, and it was for a guy just sitting there.

6. Dwight Gooden

Gooden’s career was never what it could have been, and that’s well documented. Then again, based on his first few seasons, he set such a ridiculous standard for the word “potential” that he was bound to fail. His 1985 season, by itself, would land him on this list. At the age of 20: 24 wins to 4 losses, 16 complete games, 8 shutouts, 267.7 innings (the most he ever pitched) with an ERA of 1.53. That’s 1.53. Excepting Bob Gibson’s miraculous 1968 season, it’s the lowest single-season ERA in the last 89 years. I was 11 years old at the time, and even as a kid I knew I was watching something historically special. The most exciting single-season performance I’ve ever seen by anyone.

5. John McEnroe

McEnroe was born overseas, but grew up in Queens. He won seven singles grand slams, and is arguably the best doubles player in history. His on-court behavior could be disgusting, but his performance was just as frequently sublime.

4. Tom Seaver

The ace of the Mets’ staff for years and years, when the team was (often clumsily) learning to walk. Ranks 18th all-time in wins and sixth all-time in strikeouts.

3. Mariano Rivera

Rivera has so many mind-boggling statistics, it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s allow his postseason record alone to speak for him...

In 76 games over 26 series, including four World Series titles: 117.1 innings pitched, 16 walks, 93 strikeouts, 8 wins to one loss, 34 saves, and an ERA of 0.77.

2. Lawrence Taylor

Like Babe Ruth in baseball or Wayne Gretzky in hockey, Taylor was a literal game-changer. He's widely credited with altering the way football was played. He’s one of only two defensive players to win the NFL’s MVP award. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, it would be bad enough having him on your tail. Add to his dimensions that he was a maniac, and you have someone who was truly terrifying.

1. Derek Jeter

New York is a baseball town, and that means it’s the Yankees’ town. As the shortstop for the team’s late-century dynasty, Jeter hit .314 (as a rookie), .324, .349, and .339 in the four seasons that the Yankees won championships. He’s likely to finish his career with 3,000 hits, which only 27 others have ever done. And he’s done it all with grit and class.


Blogger Nathan said...

A Detroit perspective on your list:

Thank you for including Messier and Bossy on the list. Too many people fail to even consider the great sport of hockey.

I made a trip to Yankee Stadium this year to see it again before it's demise. I've seen the Yankees before but it was the first time Rivera was needed in the game. Unbelievable. He made the batters look silly. Silly. No problem with your ranking.

Jeter? Number 1? C'mon. I agree he is a good shortstop. A better than average shortstop. I would love to have him on my team. But the No. 1 NY athlete since '68? Please. I like and respect the guy a great deal. He is a solid player and person. But he's not No. 1.

Jeter reduced to the middle of the pack, after some shuffling of the rest of the order.

Lawrence Taylor moved to number 1.

6:17 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Thanks, Nathan. A similar list for Detroit would be cool -- it's a great sports city.

I'll just address the Jeter thing quickly. I'd say a "better than average shortstop" is underselling him a bit. His lifetime batting average is .316, fifth among all active players, 70th all-time. He finished in the top 10 of MVP voting six times, and just under 10th a couple more times. (And he should have won it in '96, if you ask me.) Rookie of the Year, four titles. Etc. That's the case for him. Now, I could definitely understand putting Taylor first, and I think -- both statistically and impact....ively? -- you could make a case for either Rivera or Seaver at the top. But I don't think Jeter's crazy at the top. He's certainly no lower than fourth, I think.

So: Detroit top five?

9:22 PM  
Blogger Miles said...

McEnroe over Clyde? Take a look at Clyde's line from game 7 against the Lakers, the so-called "Willis Reed Game."

36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds.

As if that weren't impressive enough, he also contributed this gem to the popular imagination.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Kintel Williamson said...

No Butch Wynegar, eh? I see how it is...

11:56 AM  

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