At least a few moments worth remembering
Where were you when?
That question gets raised every time the anniversary date of a significant world event comes back around. For Baby Boomers, nothing may be more frequently asked than their whereabouts on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The first moon landing in 1969 receives similar recall treatment, as does the Challenger explosion in 1986, the latter largely because so many people witnessed the craft’s takeoff on television and then, sadly, its fiery demise.
Of course, a more recent example of a where-were-you-when moment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Not surprisingly, tragedy seems to resonate with human beings in a far deeper way than any other occurrence, but that doesn’t automatically mean triumph never makes the memory-inducing cut. This is especially true in sports.
While venturing through the Internet world in search of something totally unrelated, I stumbled across an old St. Petersburg Times piece that talked about the 100 most unforgettable athletic-related events.
Mind you, it was addressing happenings of the 20th century, so things like baseball’s steroids scandal weren’t yet on the radar. Still, the Times presented a rather interesting mix of events, both on and off the field of competition.
Their No. 1 item, in fact, involved the latter, which eventually influenced the former. I am, or rather they were, referring to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947. From a socially progressive standpoint, it’s true nothing had greater impact.
But, realistically, if it didn’t happen then, it likely would have occurred not too long afterward. Soon-to-come changes in the nation’s laws and public policies wouldn’t have permitted anything less.
However, there can only be one 1969 New York Mets. While there’ve been other long-shot winners in sports history, none captured the nation’s imagination quite like those Age of Aquarius Mets, who defied 100-to-1 betting odds and their own stunningly inept seven-year existence prior to that to reach baseball’s mountaintop.
(Interestingly, the Times didn’t see fit to include the Amazin’ Mets among their top 100 events. Joe Namath’s Super Bowl-winning New York Jets, though, occupied the No. 23 spot. Go figure.)
Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Times’ list should have been broken down into at least three subsets: awesome accomplishments, famous feats, and the best of both. Let me give you a few examples:
Not all awesome accomplishments are famous feats. For instance, no sane person can disagree with the fact that a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters or a 44-year-old Nolan Ryan pitching his seventh no-hitter is pretty darned impressive.
At those same ages, I’d have been hard-pressed to throw a strike past a Little Leaguer or shoot under par on a miniature golf course. But let’s be honest — no one outside the Ryan or Nicklaus families probably recalls anything specific about either of those events.
Confession time: Without incorporating a Google search, I don’t even remember what year Ryan threw his last no-no.
Truly famous feats, on the other hand, are remembered for decades and can be mentally referenced by real sports fans in a nanosecond. Interestingly, as time marches on and proof to the contrary becomes difficult to unearth, more and more of those fans will claim to have witnessed the various feats in person.
The irony is that those deeds don’t always rate as spectacular. Using the Times’ list as a point of illustration, the Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King back in 1973 — the 20th most memorable sports moment, according to the paper — was, in retrospect, pretty insignificant.
All it proved was that an in-her-prime female athlete could defeat a hustler in his mid-50s, who was handicapped further by a couple of rules changes. You may recall that Riggs was allowed only one serve instead of the usual two, and he was also required to cover the entire doubles area when King returned a shot.
Be that as it may, it did not dramatically change the athletic landscape. It was, as the Times admitted, “equal parts tennis and carnival,” yet anyone who was around to watch it the first time has no difficulty remembering it.
(As proof, please refer back two paragraphs, where I was able to point out specific match parameters without looking up the information).
And No. 48 on the Times’ list was the 1982 California-Stanford football game. That one ended with the Golden Bears using five laterals on a kickoff return and having their last ball carrier, Kevin Moen, complete the improbable, game-winning touchdown run by plowing through the middle of the Stanford band.
But other than the fact it was future NFL Hall of Famer John Elway’s final collegiate game and, of course, the bizarre nature of its conclusion, the contest itself was rather insignificant. Neither team was in the hunt for a national championship that year, or was particularly notable in any other way.
Famous feat? For sure, because all of us can recall it. Awesome accomplishment? Not really.
Every once in a while, however, all things converge into a single, seamless package to create a true defining moment. Think of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, although even that one must include an asterisk: Remember, beating the Soviet Union didn’t award the U.S. gold, it only put America’s team into the final round.
I’m sure all of you have your favorite sports memories, several of which probably aren’t found on the Times’ list, or on any other one for that matter. That’s OK, because there’s no right or wrong answer to any top-100 list, only varying degrees of subjectivity.
It’s just fun to simply remember.