THE INEXACT SCIENCE OF THE GREATEST SPORTS YEAR EVER
THE OTHER week, free-agent relief pitcher Adam Ottavino, who bewitched baseball in 2018 with his looping slider, said that if Babe Ruth played today, he'd strike the Bambino out every time. "I'm not trying to disrespect him, you know, rest in peace, shout out to Babe Ruth," he said. "But it was a different game. I mean, the guy ate hot dogs and drank beer and did whatever he did. It was just a different game."
The pitcher's point about the perils of processed meats is well-taken. But Ottavino's message about the evolution of our games comes in even handier as we pundits take stock of the just-concluded year. Too often we go further than simply looking back on the highs (Nick Foles, above, leading the Eagles over the Patriots in the Super Bowl) and lows (the Warriors marching joylessly to a foreordained title) of a given annum while we pack our bags for Cancún. Instead we carelessly wield superlatives—like the dreaded "best sports year ever!" of which four examples can be found on the right—like champagne sabers, covering ourselves in sticky suds rather than glory.
Admittedly, when holiday giddiness gives way to year-end angst and the endless wait till spring, fond memories of the past 12 months provide welcome succor. How insignificant can my existence be if I participated, vicariously, in the best sports year ever. But when we try to compare sports calendars across the ages, we lose essential context. The story matters! The 2018 Red Sox won 10 more games in the regular season than the 2004 club, and while this team steamrollered an upgraded version of the defending champs in the ALCS, the 2004 club had a little more trouble with its pennant bid. Will our alien conquerors, 500 years from now, be able to tell which team deserved to go down in history? As for the Warriors—SI's Sportsperson of the Year—their championship in 2014--15 came by way of an electrifying and joyous style that put their sleepy counterparts to shame. By contrast, their last two titles came because Kevin Durant made them unbeatable.
You and I happen to know these things because we're alive and watching sports in this age and not another. It's a little harder to track down the same intel for 1949.
These concerns persist for individual performances, too. Ruth's dominance wowed because baseball had never seen anything like him. But by offensive wins above replacement, Barry Bonds's 73-homer 2001 was actually superior to any season of Ruth's, an achievement made all the more otherworldly by how far replacement level had risen in 80 years. Owing, though, to popular misgivings about what Bonds was putting in his body, that season has since been all but written out of baseball history. How can we begin to rank that season's impact? See, context not only matters, but it can migrate with time.
So with apologies to the Eagles, Caps, Justify, Simone Biles, Villanova, Ester Ledecká, Jacob deGrom, Shohei Ohtani, and the U.S. men's curling team, I will not be dubbing 2018 the best sports year ever or anything like it. The truth is under assault these days, and we must be careful about the myths we make; no disrespect intended; shout out to Babe Ruth.