As we Slouch toward the fin de siècle, there is, predictably, a passion for ranking the best of every facet of sports in the 20th century. Alltime best athletes! Best teams! Games! Coaches! Timeouts! In fact the celebration of the best of everything in the 1900s has already begun...everything except the one thing the century is made up of: years.
Every December, there are interminable year-in-review summations in all the newspaper sports sections that nobody reads, even after everybody has raved about what a fabulous year it sure has been in the wonderful world of sports. Most years, though, really aren't particularly special. (If you doubt that, see how long it takes you to recall your favorite sports memory from 1996.) Every game—except soccer—has a winner, but that doesn't mean the winners are much good, much less special. And somebody's always breaking some record—especially now, with better equipment and better drugs. So we shouldn't get carried away.
A lot of years that stick in our memories really weren't as good as we think. Nineteen thirty-six is like that. Everybody remembers Jesse Owens and the Nazi Olympics, but name one other thing that distinguished '36. Genuinely fine sports years boast a lot of different stuff, although the best stuff early on in the century couldn't be all that different because nobody had thought up the Daytona 500, March Madness and female athletes.
Of course in this era of grade inflation, when every student is on the dean's list; and of ESPN, when every game is a classic (how can it not be, if it must eventually be inventory for its Classic Sports network?), there is an inclination for year aficionados to start raving about the incumbent year even before the New Year's Day bowl games are over. Still there is no doubt that this year is a beauty. In fact it is possible that 1998 was the best sports year in the whole damn 20th century. An awful lot of special things happened in old '98, but we have to be careful that we're not being presentist—overrating the modern day just because it's all so familiar. Hey, boys and girls: Life is not a highlight show! There were some magnificent vintage years scattered throughout the 1900s that were not captured on videotape, and like fine wine, some of those years improve with age. (For instance, who could have known in 1941 that it would be the last year anybody would hit .400?) Some bias against the present is fair, because parity and expansion dilute everything so much. As Yogi Berra didn't say: Less was more.
Also, when comparing years, we have to make sure that the memories are lasting. For example: Sure, we think it's very significant that Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota and Katarina Witt took off her clothes for Playboy. But let's be hard-nosed: From the vantage point of, say, our tricentennial year in 2076, will anyone really think those thrilling events are sports moments for the ages?
So we must be discerning. If 1998 is going to be enshrined in an honored place with the best years of the past, it must put up a lengthy résumé of memorable achievements. (Of course, let's not rush to judgment, either. Maybe we should reconsider Witt's recent body of work.) That's why my designer strike zone is very narrow. No college hockey. No inflated stats. Nothing involving boats, snowboards or bicycles. No gymnastics...or, for that matter, anything even remotely connected to the Goodwill Games.
Anyway, here, without argument (because nobody else thought of this premise), are the top dozen sports years of the 20th century—plus, in keeping with the times, a Designated Year and a Wild-Card Year. Where does 1998 fit into this cavalcade? Has it really been a great year? Could it, in fact, rank in the top 10? The top five? Even, maybe, have been the best of all? Read on.
One final note before we begin: Please hold your applause until all the best years have been introduced.
Broadway Joe's Jets upset Colts, NFL and experts; Laver wins second Grand Slam; Russell retires after another Celtics title, his 11th in 13 seasons; those Miracle Mets.
Four Horsemen roll over Army under a blue-gray sky; Nurmi goes long for five Olympic golds; Hornsby hits .424; Tilden takes fifth straight U.S. tennis title, leads U.S. to fifth straight Davis Cup; first Winter Olympics.