Top Sports Feats

by umer | 12:45 PM in |

Top Sports Feats
Top Sports Feats.LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME, everyone (myself included) was compiling "Top 10" lists to mark the close of the millennium and start of the new century. Well, the 21st century indeed became a reality on the first day of 2000, but technically, the much-anticipated third millennium didn't become fact until Jan. 1, 2001. As such, here's our "Top 3" sporting feats of the second millennium.
The New York Yankees appear in 37 World Series, winning 26 of them, including the last three and four of the last five. Where to begin? To save space, time, and an endless trip through baseball history, let's just concentrate on the last half-decade of accomplishments.
Within those four championships--over the Atlanta Braves (1996), San Diego Padres (1998), Braves again (1999), and New York Mets (2000)--were 14 straight Series victories, shattering the old mark of 12 held by the 1927/28/32 Yankees of Babe Ruth fame.
Adding to the luster of this remarkable run is the fact that the Yanks' latest reign of dominance comes in an era where the repeat champion is virtually nonexistent. In the 17 full seasons leading up to 1996--remember, 1994 was wiped out by the players' strike--there were 14 different World Series winners. Only the Toronto Blue Jays (1992-93), Los Angeles Dodgers (1981, 1988), and Minnesota Twins (1987, 1991) won more than once.
Finally, the Yankees' three-peat and four-in-five feat is more impressive still due to a grueling month of multiple-round playoffs, The post-season is now easier to get into, but tougher to get through. From 1901 to 1968, the first-place finishers in the American and National Leagues met in the World Series. From 1969 to 1984, the two division winners in each league faced off in a best-of-five championship series, with the victors advancing to the World Series. From 1985 to 1993, the League Championship Series was expanded to a best-four-of-seven format. After the 1994 strike, each league was broken down into three divisions, with the division champions and a wild-card team (the club with the best second-place record) qualifying for the playoffs. To be crowned champion of the baseball world, a team must win a best-three-of-five Division Series as well a best-four-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series. The Yankees' composite post-season record during their latest title run is 44-12. Moreover, the 1998 Bombers finished 75 games over .500, a record that will stand as long as the 14-game Series streak -- in other words, probably forever.
Footnote to history: The Atlanta Braves also put a record into the "eternity" category, closing the millennium with nine straight first-place finishes. But look out Braves, because the Yanks' current division title streak is running at three.
P.S.: "The best team always wins; just look at the scoreboard" is the most enduring rule in sports. I believe it with all my heart. Having said that, let me put forth my personal pick for the best baseball team of the second millennium: the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles. Trouble is, they won three straight American League pennants, but only one World Series. Still, I'd take manager Earl Weaver's Birds in a series against anyone, at any time, in any place.
The New York Islanders win 19 consecutive playoff series on their way to four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83) and five finals appearances in a row. Even the greatest of the great almost inevitably stub their toe along the road to glory. Not the Islander dynasty. Even their demise, a final-round passing of the torch to the next great juggernaut in Edmonton, served as a fitting juxtaposition to enduring hockey excellence. The Oilers went on to win four Stanley Cups in five years (and five in seven), and reached the finals in six of eight seasons. Their first trip to the finals, in 1983, resulted in a four-game sweep by the incumbent Isles. The next season, Edmonton lost another final-round opener to the four-time defending champs, then reeled off four straight victories on their way to immortality.
The hand-wringing that comes with trying to compare dynasties in any sport is exacerbated in this instance because the hands of time came thisclose to pitting these two magnificent hockey clubs against each other with each in its prime. What's left is the argument as to who was better. It kills me to admit that I think the Islanders would prevail in a series of any length, although the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers of the 1980s, when in full flight, were the most exciting sight any sports fan could ever wish to see in three lifetimes.
Tie: The UCLA Bruins men's basketball team wins seven straight National Collegiate Athletic Association titles (and 10 in 12 years), and the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls capture six National Basketball Association titles in eight years.
UCLA's astounding accomplishments during the 1964-75 seasons under coach John Wooden will forever remain a marvel of excellence. Just to qualify for the NCAA tournament that often is tough enough, but to emerge from March Madness year after year after year not only to reach the finals, but win them, is a task almost beyond comprehension. The NCAAs began in 1939. Other than UCLA, no school has won more than two titles in a row.
There's only one goal in all sports at any time: Win the championship! The 1959-66 Boston Celtics did that eight straight times--a practically untouchable record. Yet, the Bulls' run just might deserve at least alongside status with Boston's best.
I've long cringed at the starry-eyed claims that Chicago's Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of all time. Nevertheless, the tree measure of any all-time great is the number of rings he brings home. (Jordan temporarily left the NBA to play professional baseball in 1993. The Bulls won three NBA titles before he left, and three after he returned.)
Honorable "Millennium" Mentions: Willie Mays wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award a record 11 years apart, in 1954 and 1965. The New York Giants become the only club in modern (post-1900) N.L. history to win four consecutive pennants (1921-24). Jimmy Brown sets (since-broken) records of 1,863 yards rushing in a National Football League season, 12,312 in a career, and 237 in a game. (Like Babe Ruth in baseball and Wayne Gretzky in hockey, there's no argument: Brown was the best ever at his chosen athletic endeavor.) The Montreal Canadiens win 24 Stanley Cups. The Green Bay Packers win Super Bowls I and II, capping off perhaps football's most powerful dynasty as coach Vince Lombardi's Pack wins four NFL titles in six years.
Wayne M. Barrett is Managing Editor of USA Today.