Baseball’s 10 Greatest Moments: Worthless
Bobby Thomson? Sorry, we’ve seen clips of his pennant-winning home run and, really, what’s the big deal? He hit it in black and white.
Carlton Fisk? Uh-uh. His team lost that World Series.
Barry Bonds? Doesn’t smile as much as Mark McGwire.
Jackie Robinson? Sure, his breaking of baseball’s color barrier is an achievement seared into the hearts and minds of an entire race. But Cal Ripken Jr. made the front of a MasterCard credit card, and when you’re competing against the greatest legends of the game in an election sponsored by MasterCard, what is the value of that?
On a September night in 1995, Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game for the Baltimore Orioles, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. He didn’t clinch a pennant that night; the ’95 Orioles finished 71-73, 15 games out of first place. He didn’t do anything dramatic or spontaneous or unscripted; he simply punched the clock, same as he had day after day, season after season.
But he had the good fortune of doing it during the last decade, in prime time, during the ESPN era, with the media hyping the moment for months -- years, actually -- and whetting the appetite of a nation gone sour on its erstwhile pastime in the wake of the 1994 players strike.
It was ultimate made-for-television, pre-packaged, circle-the-calendar, feel-good event. Do you remember where you were when Ripken broke the record? Of course you do. You had it in your Day Planner months in advance.
Did that give Ripken an edge in a summer-long poll, conducted mostly online, to determine the most memorable moment in baseball history? Of course it did. Ty Cobb didn’t have his own Web site when he played. Enos Slaughter never did a wink-and-nudge commercial with the “SportsCenter” gang. In today’s short-attention-span, show-it-to-me-on-TV (again and again) culture, I’m amazed the rally monkey didn’t crack the top 10.
Ripken’s 2,131st game was announced as the winner during an on-field ceremony before Wednesday night’s World Series Game 4. Out of more than 1.1 million ballots cast, Ripken’s record-breaker received 282,821 votes, finishing ahead of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, which received 275,451 votes.
Robinson’s 1947 big-league debut, which revolutionized American society and finally dragged the major leagues into the 20th century, was a modest third. Completing the top 10, in descending order, were McGwire’s 62nd home run in 1998, Gehrig’s retirement speech in 1939, Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit in 1985, Ted Williams batting .406 in 1941, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run in 1988 and Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter in 1991.
Half the top 10 happened during the VCR era.
Six occurred during the color television era.
The remaining four break down like this:
Two involved famous New York Yankees. Gehrig -- that was the guy who had the record before Ripken, right? DiMaggio -- didn’t Paul Simon write a song about him?
One involved the lead character in this year’s most publicized sports soap opera -- Williams’ frozen remains and his crazed squabbling children.
The other changed the course of U.S. history.
The Giants evened the World Series Wednesday night, but earlier they drew the collar, going 0 for 5 on the greatest-moment poll. Thirty moments were listed on the official ballot, and the Giants had five:
* Christy Mathewson pitching three shutouts in the 1905 World Series;
* Carl Hubbell striking out Babe Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game;
* Thomson hitting his 1951 pennant-winning home run;
* Willie Mays making his legendary Polo Grounds catch in the 1954 World Series;
* Bonds hitting his 71st home run in 2001.
None of them made the top 10.
Look for the following advertisement in the days ahead: Visa, the new official credit card of the San Francisco Giants.
When McGwire, clad in business suit and St. Louis Cardinal cap, jogged onto the field when his name was announced, the Pac Bell Park crowd began chanting, “Barry! Barry!” Bonds broke McGwire’s record, an event that plays much better in San Francisco than Peoria. Bonds does not appear in any commercial with a fan dreaming about being his best friend.
The biggest cheers were reserved for Rose, possibly because the crowd knew Jim Gray wouldn’t be there to interview him.
The biggest jeers, no surprise, went to Gibson, an old Dodger milking it in the middle of hostile territory, pumping his fist, the same way he did as he rounded the bases in ’88 against the A’s.
Between Robinson’s debut and Gibson’s home run -- a span of 41 years -- the Dodgers were not represented on the top-30 ballot. No Sandy Koufax. No Maury Wills. No Don Drysdale.
In fact, no moments between 1961 and 1971 were listed at all, meaning no Miracle Mets, no Bob Gibson striking out 17 Detroit Tigers in a World Series game, no Curt Flood.
More than half the top 30 -- 17 in all -- happened after 1970. Nine occurred after 1990 -- three during the last 13 months. In addition to Bonds’ 71st home run, the ballot included Arizona’s World Series upset of the Yankees and Ichiro Suzuki sweeping the American League MVP and rookie of the year awards. In other words, one of the 30 greatest moments in major-league history, according to the ballot, was an off-season conference call.
Almost as strange as the ballot was the three-man rotation selected to MC the pregame ceremony: Billy Crystal, presumably because he made a movie about baseball; Ray Liotta, presumably because he appeared as a player in a movie about baseball; and Andy Garcia, presumably because he has a loud voice. But, then, the organizers were working with a very short list. Whom else could they have rounded up to host? Bud Selig?
Ripken got many of his votes, no doubt, because he hauled Selig’s necktie out of the wringer in ’95, by doing something that no major leaguer did during September and October of ’94. He played baseball. Every day. Ripken helped bring back jaded fans who had sworn off the game, and had sworn to keep their children away, only 12 months earlier.
To this day, Selig remains in his debt.
Wednesday night, thanks to a credit-card company and its over-hyped popularity contest, Ripken received partial payment.
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Major League Baseball’s 10 most memorable moments (as voted by fans):
*--* 1 1995 -- Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig’s streak with his 2,131st consecutive game 2 1974 -- Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record 3 1947 -- Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American major leaguer 4 1998 -- Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpass Roger Maris’ single-season home run record 5 1939 -- Lou Gehrig retires with his “luckiest man” farewell speech 6 1985 -- Pete Rose passes Ty Cobb as the all-time hits leader 7 1941 -- Ted Williams is the last man to post a .400 average 8 1941 -- Joe DiMaggio hits in 56 consecutive games 9 1988 -- Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit homer sends Dodgers on way to a World Series upset 10 1991 -- Nolan Ryan pitches his seventh no-hitter