TMR Sports: The Greatest of All Time

Discussions will be popping up all over the county today, by water coolers, in cubicles, at the gym, on the subway, in the cafeteria. These particular discussions will not be whether US should invade North Korea and finally remove that psycho Kim Jong-Il. They will not be whether David Carradine committed suicide or died in some strange, sexual accident. They will not even be whether or not Speidy (don’t ask) should, or should not still be on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

While all of these are certainly interesting, worthy discussions, people will be talking about this: Is Roger Federer now the greatest tennis player to ever step on a court?

The reason people will be discussing this is very simple. It will lead to a much broader discussion of who is the greatest in each sport. People love talking about this. It has been a debate that has raged for decades. And, the more great players we get the privilege to watch, the more players we get to add to the argument.

Three years ago, we couldn’t add Sidney Crosby to the argument. Ten years ago, we couldn’t add Kobe Bryant to the argument. Five years from now, we may be adding Stephen Strassburg to the argument. You get the point.

As I was sitting in my living room on Sunday, watching Roger Federer beat Sweden’s Robin Soderling 6-1 7-6 6-4 in the French Open Finals. As the NBC team of Ted Robinson, John McEnroe and Mary Carillo discussed, several times, throughout the broadcast, this victory puts Federer alone atop Tennis Mountain.

As a side note, before I forget, as much as I loved watching McEnroe play in the 80’s, I love listening to him even more. He’s a great analyst. Terrific insight and very knowledgeable.

Anyway, after eleven attempts at the French Open, Federer was able to win the Championship. This victory makes him only the 6th man in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam:

Player Total Slams
R. Federer 14
R. Emerson 12
R. Laver 11
A. Agassi 8
F. Perry 8
D. Budge 6

You may ask, if five other players have done this previously, why is he the best ever? Well, this victory also ties him with Pete Sampras with the most Grand Slam (Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open, French Open) victories all time at 14.

Also, only Federer and Andre Agassi are the only two men in history who have completed the career Grand Slam while playing on three surfaces, grass, clay and hard court. That certainly shows tremendous versatility.

I think there is little doubt at this point that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. And the best part is that he’s only 27. He has Wimbledon coming up in a few weeks.

With close friend and biggest rival (and current Wimbledon champ) Rafael Nadal probably not playing due to a knee injury, Federer is the odds-on favorite to win that too and overtake Sampras with 15 Grand Slam wins.

My guess is that he may have a few more wins in him after that. We may see him finish with 22 or 23 before he’s done. Let me remind you again that the current record is 14. Wow!!

So let’s look at some other “greatest of all time’s.

Let’s stay with tennis for a minute.

Martina Navratilova completely dominated women’s tennis for over 20 years. She beat the best, she became the best. She was ranked No. 1 in the world for seven years. We spent some time talking about Sampras and Federer winning 14 Grand Slams, Navratilova won 18 (Wimbledon 9 times), along with 41 doubles Grand Slams titles.

She not only completed a career Grand Slam, she is the only person in tennis history, men or women, to complete a career “boxed-set”, which is winning all four Grand Slams playing singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

In 1983, Navratilova went 86-1, a record never matched before or since, and in 1984, she won a record 74 consecutive matches before suffering her first loss.

There can be little argument that Martina Navratilova is the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. There may even be some legitimate argument that she is the greatest tennis player of all time, but that’s another argument for another day.

How about Wayne Gretzky? Hmmmm. They don’t call him “The Great One” for nothing. He appeared in 18 All-Star Games. He led the league in points 11 times. He is the all-time career leader in points. He led league in assists 16 times. He’s the all-time career leader in assists. He led league in goals five times. He is the all-time career leader in goals. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy (League MVP) 9 times. I think he has a pretty good case.

I know you automatically want to put Muhammad Ali here, and so do I. To be honest, when I think of the word “Champion”, I actually think of Ali, nearly every time. He was the ultimate champion. But, there’s another boxer that’s better, and he’s not even a heavyweight.

Although very recent, it’s hard to not put newly crowned junior welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao at the top of this list. Here’s the argument:

On May 2nd, Manny Pacquiao beat Great Britain’s Ricky Hatton to claim the title. This gave Pacquiao a championship in his sixth weight class. He joins Oscar DeLahoya as only the 2nd boxer in history to do this. Pacquiao has now held a championship belt as a flyweight (112 lb), junior featherweight (122), featherweight (126), junior lightweight (130), lightweight (135), and now junior welterweight (140).

The difficulty of this cannot be underestimated. Consider the fact that a boxer has to gain weight to go into a different weight class, and that has the potential to slow them down and make them sluggish. They can’t get any taller, only heavier.

Pacquiao’s 2nd round knock-out over Hatton brought his career record to (49-3-2, 37 KOs). It was his 4th consecutive fight in a different weight class. Hopefully, his next fight will be against Shane Mosely, but there are no discussions in the works yet.

Not only is Jim Brown largely considered the greatest football player of all time, he’s largely considered the greatest athlete of all time. Although he only played for nine seasons, he is still the standard against which all other running backs are measured.

Brown ranked 1st in rushing yards eight times in his nine seasons, and ranks 8th overall in career rushing yards (12,312). Did I mention that he only played for nine seasons? He also ranked first in yards per game eight times, and ranks 1st overall in career yards per game (104.3).

What he really excelled at was the ability to maneuver around the defense without being touched. No one could move in and out of the defensive line and secondary with the ball like Brown could. He was unstoppable.

In the summer of 1966, Brown was in London, working on the movie, The Dirty Dozen. He and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell could not agree to a date that Brown would return to the States for the football season. Modell essentially called him out in the papers, suspending him without pay for failure to reporting to camp in July. Brown replied, by mail, that he had no choice, but to announce his immediate retirement.

This was at the age of 29, in the absolute prime of his amazing career. The sports world was shocked. The sports world was no less shocked when Barry Sanders, at the age of 30, after 10 years in the NFL, suddenly announced his retirement in the prime of his career in July, 1999.

OK, without question, basketball and baseball are the two most difficult to determine. There have been so many great players in each sport, for different reasons. There have been players on teams that have won many championships, but may not have without others on their teams (Bill Russell, Yogi Berra). There have been players who have scored a million points or won a ton of games, but may not have without a great supporting cast (Wilt Chamberlain, Cy Young). So, I think what we have to do is just look at the original definition that I laid out in the very beginning of this column. Who just dominated, in every aspect over everyone they faced? Who would most likely dominate anyone they came across in any era?

When I think of pure domination in this sport, Michael Jordan automatically comes to mind. I don’t think it would have mattered whether he was up against Bob Cousey, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, or Kobe Bryant. He would have dominated.

Five-time league MVP, Rookie of the Year. He led the league in points scored eleven times and is ranked 3rd overall in career points scored (32, 292). He led the league in point per game ten times and is ranked 1st overall with a ridiculous 30.1 points per game for a career. On the other side of the ball, he finished in the top five in steals per game nine times, ranking 3rd overall in career steals per game (2.3).

But what defines Jordan as the best NBA player of all time is the fear he struck in opponents as he came down the lane, or went in for a layup. No one in the history of the game ever clearly dominated the sport and everyone in it as much as Michael Jordan did. And the best part, he did it with such class.

In my mind, this is even harder than basketball. That’s why I saved it for last, to give me more time to think about it. Well, I still need more time. Oh, all right.

Which way are you supposed to go with this? Batter or pitcher? We certainly can’t go with Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. Alex Rodriguez is out. Sorry Philly Rob, I’m not putting in Steve Carlton. And, despite his own claims, Rickey Henderson is not the greatest.

So, where does that leave us? After some pretty decent analysis, I have to put Ted Williams right at the top of the list as the greatest baseball player of all time. Here’s why. He is one of only two people who is in the top 20 in HR, (521, 20th), batting average (.344, 7th), RBI (1839, 13th), and walks (2021, 2nd).

The only other guy is Babe Ruth. The only thing that stopped me from putting Ruth in instead of Williams is even though Ruth ranked higher than Williams in most of these categories, this isn’t about that. I really believe that head to head, Ted Williams would have been more dominant that Babe Ruth.

That aside, if you put back the three years that Ted Williams lost due to World War II (’43-’45, age 24-26, the prime of his career) and the two years that he lost to the Korean War (’52-’53, age 33-34), we can extrapolate about 37 HR and 130 RBI per year, for an additional 185 HR and 650 RBI. This gives him 706 HR and 2489 RBI.

Even if you don’t do this, I think that Williams was superior, that he very likely would have utterly dominated in any era that he played in. And this is the very essence of what make one the greatest of all time in their given sport.

Of course, all of this is quite subjective and open to argument. That’s what makes it so much fun.