Several weeks back, 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 (Tom Brady getting strip-sacked in the fourth quarter of a 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 at least four examples can be found in the history of this illustrious magazine—like champagne sabers, covering ourselves in sticky suds rather than glory.
Admittedly, when the nights get long and the air gets cool and Christmas giddiness gives way to year-end angst and the endless wait ’til spring, sepia-toned 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, and I have all these commemorative mugs to prove it? Don’t worry. I’m not coming for your mugs.
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 the '18 team steamrollered an upgraded version of the defending champs in the ALCS, the '04 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. Perhaps, in the future, baseball analysts will be able to offer a credible and informed estimation of how Bonds would have played had he never visited BALCO. Until then, though, how can we begin to rank that season’s impact?
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. 2019 shouldn’t bother getting its hopes up, either.
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. — By Jack Dickey
• Dear Andy, how many other teams could Nick Saban coach to the national title game? (By Andy Staples)
• Examining why, in the NFL, blame falls disproportionately on the head coach while GMs keep escaping the consequences. (By Jenny Vrentas)
• Why Chelsea, why now and what does the future hold? Our story on Christian Pulisic's record-shattering transfer and the opportunity at hand for the 20-year-old USMNT star. (By Grant Wahl)
• Remembering the stellar work of Mean Gene Okerlund. (By Jimmy Traina)
• Looking to build a 2019 reading list? Check out our most-read stories of the last year.
• If you missed any of our serialized podcast on Steve McNair, Fall of a Titan,the entire series (and burning questions) can be found here.
Vault Photo of the Week: Tiger's Good Ol' Days
As of last week, Tiger Woods is officially another year older. The 43-year-old is many moons past his prime but still captures the attention of the sports world like few other figures. While it's uncertain how much more quality golf he can provide—he's still trying for his first major win since 2008—there are more than enough epic memories to look back on. Namely, who's ever going to forget his magical chip shot on 16 at the 2005 Masters? You know, the one that stopped just short of the hole before dropping in.
Tiger's celebration on that shot was captured above by the incomparable Neil Leifer.
From simply unsportsmanlike to utterly insane, here are 14 of the oddest sports offerings from 2018.
Illustration by Davide Barco.
EENY MEENY MINY SCHMO
A British soccer referee who forgot his coin was given a three-week suspension by the English FA for having the captains in a Women's Super League match play rock-paper-scissors to determine which team kicked off.
HE WAS BOOKED FOR DIVING
To get out of a match, the Irish soccer team Ballybrack FC falsely announced the death of one of its players in a traffic accident.
A GENTLEMAN'S GAME
After a fight involving two foursomes at Southers Marsh Golf Club in Plymouth, Mass., a 47-year-old man was arrested for allegedly biting off the thumb of another golfer.
Dennis Rodman said he would attend the diplomatic summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore "thanks to my loyal sponsors at PotCoin."
Bruins left wing Brad Marchand licked Maple Leafs center Leo Komarov on the face during Game 1 of their opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series, saying afterward, "I thought he wanted to cuddle."
Marchand also licked Tampa Bay right wing Ryan Callahan in Game 4 of the second round, earning a reprimand from the NHL and the scorn of Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who told a reporter, "How would you feel if I walked over to you right now and gave you one big lick from the chin up?"
Competitive eater Matt Stonie ate 324 feet of Fruit by the Foot in 57 minutes and 45 seconds, ingesting an extruded ribbon of artificially flavored whatsit the length of a football field.
THE LAST HONEST MAN
Asked if he wrote his own autobiography, Thunder center Steven Adams said, "No, I didn't write it. ... I can barely read, mate."
ALWAYS USE A CONDIMENT
Burger King apologized for offering a lifetime supply of Whoppers to any women impregnated by players competing in the World Cup.
WORSE THAN A HELICOPTER PARENT
Someone hired a plane to fly over Briarcliff (N.Y.) High during a baseball playoff game in May. It was pulling a banner that demanded the firing of two coaches.
RHYMES WITH DART
Professional competitors Gary Anderson and Wesley Harms accused each other of malevolent flatulence during their November match in the Grand Slam of Darts. Said Anderson, "It was eggs, rotten eggs, but not from me. If somebody has done that, they need to see a doctor."
AND SIGNIFICANTLY LOWERED MY RATING
The Uber driver in Phoenix who posted video of Ottawa Senators players disparaging an assistant coach later apologized for his action, saying, "It has brought great shame to my family."
LEADING POLICE ON A PIN-JUGGLING CHASE
Red Panda, the plate-spinning acrobat and frequent NBA halftime entertainer, had her seven-foot, $25,000 unicycle stolen at the San Francisco airport.
— By Steve Rushin
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.