Being repetitive is usually a trait that garners annoyance not admiration, but in sports there are few greater causes for recognition than the ability to repeat yourself — and a feat — over and over.
Streaks connect the past with the present and pursuit with accomplishment. They’re milestones and mile markers for sports history. We recall them, lionize them, and love them.
The power of a sports streak has been on full display recently. The Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history, and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ winning streak, which reached 15 Saturday — two shy of the NHL record set by the 1992-93 Penguins — have been pabulum for the ESPN hype machine.
Toss in the Chicago Blackhawks’ record-setting start to the truncated NHL season — they garnered points in their first 24 games — and it’s been one team after another getting their streak on.
The cult of the streak in sports is not a new phenomenon. The most famous individual streak in North American sports history is Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, the Holy Grail of consecutive accomplishment.
From May 15, 1941, to July 16, 1941, Joltin’ Joe hit in 56 straight games, batting .409. The Yankee Clipper won the American League MVP that year. The runner-up was Ted Williams, who hit .406 for the season and remains the last player to hit .400.
Williams had an incredible 1.287 OPS (on-base plus slugging) that season. If sabermetrics had been around in 1941, this would have made the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout AL MVP war over WAR (wins above replacement) look like a minor dust-up.
DiMaggio’s Yankees finished 17 games ahead of the Red Sox for the American League pennant, but The Streak won him the MVP.
The two greatest dynasties in basketball history are defined and connected by championship streaks. The Celtics won eight straight NBA titles from 1958-59 to 1965-66, part of a remarkable run of 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1956-57 through 1968-69 that made the parquet the royal court of the NBA.
That streak of eight consecutive titles is unmatched in major North American sports and will remain that way forever.
The cornerstone for the Celtics’ historic ring run was, of course, one William Felton Russell. When Russell was a college player at the University of San Francisco, where his roommate was another Celtic-to-be, K.C. Jones, the Dons constructed an NCAA-record 60-game winning streak. The streak ended the season after Russell departed for the NBA.
That NCAA-record winning streak was broken by UCLA, the other great hardwood empire. The Wizard of Westwood and the master of aphorisms, John Wooden, coached UCLA to a men’s NCAA-record 88 consecutive wins from 1971 to 1974.
Wooden’s Bruins won seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1966-67 to 1972-73 and 10 in 12 seasons from 1963-64 to 1974-75.
Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team won an almost-unfathomable 90 games in a row from 2008 to 2010. Say what you will about the imperious Auriemma, but coming out victorious 90 straight times in any athletic endeavor strains credulity.
In sports, simply showing up for work constitutes a notable streak. Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games, breaking the previously unattainable mark set by Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 straight.
Streaks are not always good, as we know all too well here in New England. The Red Sox went 86 years between championships, a streak of futility that provided a patina of inevitable misery that came to define Sox fandom.
The Chicago Cubs, baseball’s lovable (some would say perpetual) losers, have gone more than a century since winning their last World Series. They haven’t even played in a Fall Classic since 1945, which alone would qualify as the longest championship drought in baseball.
That ignominious span of sustained failure is more infamous than famous, but it also is probably the franchise’s fan-drawing motif.
Sometimes even when your streak is a losing one, it can make you a winner.
Not all streaks get the acclaim they deserve.
The Patriots won 21 consecutive NFL games, regular and postseason combined, from 2003 to 2004. In a league that legislates and mandates parity, that kind of dominance deserves more recognition. Yes, the Miami Dolphins had their perfect 17-0 season in 1972, but that was pre-salary cap.
Perhaps there are those outside of New England who discount the Patriots’ 21-game streak because of Spygate, the signal-stealing scandal that cast suspicion upon Bill Belichick’s accomplishments.
But even after the NFL took away their illicit camera routine, the Patriots authored arguably the greatest regular season in NFL history, going 16-0 in 2007. We all know the demise-in-the-desert ending to that 18-1 run.
The Patriots are oft-derided for hanging a banner in Gillette Stadium recognizing the Almost Perfect Patriots, but 16-0 is a greater accomplishment, albeit a less-rewarding one, than winning a Super Bowl.
Lots of teams get hot at the end of the season, like the 10-6 Baltimore Ravens, and win the Super Bowl. However, since the NFL went to a 16-game slate in 1978, only one team has gone 16-0.
You tell me which is harder to do?
Some streaks become less meaningful over time. There is a good chance that Tom Brady will break the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass next season. TB12 is at 48 and counting. The record is 54, set by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who took it from Johnny Unitas.
In a league where pass defense has become an oxymoron and passing stats have become more inflated than a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, this streak is a specious one.
Not all streaks count the same, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop counting them any time soon.