The big rainout (lightning out?) of last weekend's game has given me precious little to write about this week. There's no trend piece to write and no analysis of week one. There was no game, hence no analysis. I don't really like writing predictions or previews because games are inherently unpredictable and Jesus, did you see how lousy my pick ‘em was?
Which means I'm still in a bit of offseason mode here. This means it's as good as a time as any to rank something ridiculous. This week's challenge: the best era of each particular sport. I limited myself to one decade per sport, so ten different sports made the list.
Now, I've little patience for nostalgia merchants who want to tell us that things were always better back in the day. If anything else, it is clearly better to be a sports fan now thanks to the internet and expansive cable packages. It's much easier to watch sports now. That's not even a debate.
Yet I also don't really subscribe to the idea of non-stop improvement in athletics. People may point to the 100 meter record always going down, but part of that is technological breakthroughs like the track itself and the jackrabbit effect of chasing a record. Besides, it hasn't been nonstop progress. Michael Johnson's 400m record still stands, set in 1999. Also set in 199? The 1000m and 2000m record. The 1500m was set in 1998 and the 3000m in 1996. The oldest men's track record was set in 1992: the 400m hurdles.
And that doesn't even get into field events. The high jump record was set in 1993 and the triple jump in 1995. The shot put was set in 1990, and that was well after the discus and hammer throw records, both set in 1986. Let's not even get into the fact Michael Powell's long jump record, set in 1991, has stood longer than Beamon's 1968 record. I just don't believe in universal, linear improvement in sport.
Also, even if we do concede that athletes get better and better with each passing year, that doesn't mean the aesthetics of the game improved. The best decade for a sport should not only involve great athletes, but a fun product to watch. Just for fun, I'll also list my runner-up for each sport, and why it didn't get the nod...
10 ‘00s Women's Tennis
For all of the talk the men's game gets, the aughts were quietly awesome for women's tennis, and far and away the best era. We had the rise of the Williams sisters, who transformed the game, and the final hurrah for Lindsay Davenport. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were worthy rivals to Serena, and we had the rise of the Kourniclones. Russian tennis got awesome, even if Maria Sharapova emigrated to the US.
Runner-up: 90s. It might've ranked #1, but the stabbing of Seles is way too depressing. Robbed us of the full Graf-Seles rivalry. Plus, the Swiss Miss!
9 ‘70s Soccer
Truly, when the international game was born. The 1970 Brazlian team is still talked about in hushed tones, as if they didn't actually exist. Ajax gave birth to Total Football, eventually exported to the world through the Dutch national team. The game they innovated still forms the basis of the game today. The amazing thing about this era is that it even seemed mythical as it was happening. Cruyuff. Pele. Beckenbauer. There were god-like figures even when they were active. It was like watching a myth. Unfortunately, it collapsed into the soul-crushingly awful 1980s, perhaps the worst decade in soccer's history. It only made the 70s seem even greater.
Runner-up: ‘10s. Spanish tiki taki was amazing, and it was equally wonderful to see it dismantled by the Bayern machine. The rise of the superclub is a bit depressing, though.
8 ‘80s Baseball
Yes, the 1980s. When we wax nostalgic about baseball's long history, the 1980s never get their full due, probably because of the awful uniforms (polyester is not a good look). However, this was the most "fair" era in baseball's history, as the external factors did not favor any one style of play over another like the all-offense 90s or the all-pitching 60s. Any style of team could win the World Series, and did so. Because of a near even playing field, no team could dominate, and in ten years, there were nine different champions (and the Dodgers won titles in 1981 and 1988 with entirely different rosters). This was baseball's most competitive era, and it also encouraged a true contrast of styles from the speedy Whitey Herzog Cardinals to the proto-sabermetric Earl Weaver Orioles to the just hit the hell out of the ball Bash Brother Athletics.
Runner-up: ‘50s. Still legendary, but it had to suck if you didn't live in New York.
7 ‘10s Golf
That's right. Right f'n now. The collapse of Tiger Woods has allowed the next generation of players to flourish, those that were inspired by his example. So instead of one Tiger, absent-mindedly destroying a fairly outmatched field, we have about a dozen mini-Tigers. We even have a villain, as everyone seems to hate Bubba Watson. The Rory-Jordan rivalry is in its infancy, but it could grow into one of the all-time great ones.
Runner-up: ‘70s. Jack at his peak, against an interesting field of personalities. The Tiger era is hurt by the lack of a decent foil other than Phil.
6 ‘80s Men's Tennis
What a delightful era with a deep roster of contenders. It lacked the one player just crushing the sport like Sampras or Federer (though we do get the last year of Borg, and maybe the greatest match ever played in the 1980 Wimbledon final versus McEnroe). Lendl was the best player, but he didn't utterly dominate the field. Also, the other contenders all played wildly disparate styles, making each tournament a fun contrast. Also, the different surfaces played much differently, especially the near lack of bounce at Wimbledon which would make today's groundstroke-heavy game nearly impossible. Today's court and racket technology would make the more elegant styles of Edberg and McEnroe nearly impossible to sustain at an elite level, which is just tragic. They were beautiful players.
Runner-up: ‘10s. Federer is a shell of his former self, but he's still an elite player. But we get the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, and some actual depth to the field again, instead of killing time until Fed and Nadal play each other.
5 ‘90s NHL
I want to say the 1980s because watching Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in their primes was simply absurd. However, defense hadn't been invented yet, and 6-5 games do get old after a while. The 90s still have the tail end of the greatest two players' careers plus we get the greatest rivalry: the Wings-Avalanche war. Patrick Roy changed the goaltender position and played on a stacked Avs team, but not nearly as stacked as the Red Wings teams, buoyed by the infusion of Russian talent. The NHL goes international, and it was far better for it. And while the Devils got carried away with it, actual defense!
Runner-up: ‘10s. Emerging from the Dead Puck era, we now have a truly international game which favors skill, though we seem to lack a bit of panache.
4 ‘00s NFL
The NFL's rise to full world domination of our sports calendar reached its apex in first decade of this century. The Greatest Show on Turf revolutionized offenses (They make the cut! Super Bowl XXXIV was played in January of 2000!), yet we still got to enjoy some of the greatest defenses in league history thanks to Tampa and Baltimore. The Patriots went from plucky underdog to hated villain, and even the Saints got good for once. Even the off-field news wasn't nearly as depressing as it is now.
Runner-up: ‘80s. The powerhouse NFL East, the 49ers dynasty, and the Super Bowl Shuffle Bears. Non-competitive Super Bowls sucked, but we did get some classic AFC playoffs.
3 ‘80s NCAA basketball
The tournament as we know it is born, and things get weird pretty much right away. We got Manning and the Miracles as well as Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug. On the other side, we got Michael Jordan leading UNC to a title, the Georgetown superpower and the rest of the Big East at peak Big East, and even title-less Phi Slamma Jamma. The ACC was so deep that Len Bias won Player of the Year and his team finished sixth in the conference. Games mattered, and players stayed for long enough to build up genuine hatred for each other. It was a truly special era.
Runner-up: ‘90s. The rise of the Duke monster and some fun teams in UNLV and the Fab Five. The beginning of the erosion of college's talent base.
2 ‘10s NCAA football
Don't let anyone fool you, this is college football's greatest era. We finally have a non-mythical champion, and nearly every conference is deep and competitive. The era of The Big Two and Little Eight is long since passed, as new powers have been able to rise to prominence. Still, we have some healthy bluebloods as well to keep the mythic nature up. The game itself is as innovative as ever, and even with the rise of the HUNH offense, old fashioned smash mouth #ManBall still can win titles.
Runner-up: ‘00s. Pretty much the same as now, only without a legitimate method to declare a champion. The ‘80s gets points for being weird, though, and dragging the game into the modern era.
1 ‘90s NBA
Could it be anything else? Sport's most iconic athlete at the very peak of his powers, and a crowded galaxy of stars to compete against. There was an embarrassment of talent at the center position (Hakeem, Robinson, Shaq, Ewing) and some of the best point guards in league history (Magic, Stockton, the Glove). Genuinely fun villains in the Bad Boy Pistons provided a great counterweight to the more open game now being played, as the transition to absorbing the ABA's style reached its conclusion. Even outside the Bulls, there were genuinely fun teams like Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Phoenix who all challenged for the title (and the Pacers, who couldn't get out of the East for obvious reasons). Then we put it all together to make the Dream Team, a now legendary collection of talent (though I'd argue the 1996 team was even better, even without Jordan).
Runner-up: ‘10s. We've got a bevy of likeable stars and an overall fun style of play. The stat-guys are bit insufferable about the modern offense (look, it's just advocating to chuck it from deep a lot, it's not rocket science), but the game has emerged relatively unscathed from the rock fights of the aughts.